009.017

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“Welcome back to Brakket Magical Academy for another night of mystery and imagination. I’m your host, Hank Hanson, and with me is the lovely Zoe Baxter, professor of theory here at Brakket Academy.”

“Thank you, Hank,” Zoe said, trying to keep her smile as natural as possible.

“Now,” he said, “for those of you just joining us, a quick recap of the last event and the purpose of this tournament as a whole.”

As he started speaking, Zoe started tuning him out. Not enough to completely ignore him. She still nodded her head when there was something to nod at or even commented for more elaboration on a few topics he was less familiar with.

He had shown up to several classes over the last two weeks. During the classes, he had always been silent and allowed other students to ask questions. Most of the time, he dutifully took notes. Really, he was probably a better student than half of her actual students.

After class was when the real trouble began. His incessant bombardment of questions was just too much. That wasn’t to say that they were bad questions. Some were quite good. A few even had her needing to do a little research before being able to properly answer.

It was the sheer quantity that grated on her nerves. Since he had started attending classes, Zoe found herself answering questions for up to five hours after school ended. Every single day. A time during which she was generally unable to get other work done. No grading papers. No enigma research. Worst of all, her lesson plans were going to suffer soon if she couldn’t find the time to organize.

After today’s event, Zoe was desperately hoping that he would not be returning for further education. If he was, she would have to set a time limit. A single hour outside school would have to suffice.

On the plus side, he was a lot more confident speaking about thaumaturgical matters. Once the event actually got underway, she might not have to carry ninety percent of the discussion as she had for the last event.

Zoe was still expecting to be the one doing most of the talking, however.

“Last event, neither we nor the contestants knew what the event was going to consist of. I understand that things are different this time around.”

“That is correct,” Zoe said with a nod of her head. “The contestants are currently being informed of what they are to do with roughly an hour before the event starts. They can use the remainder of that hour for whatever preparation they feel they need before the event itself will begin. That could mean brewing potions, collecting enchanted items, or simply practicing with their peers.”

“And they’re not the only ones who know ahead of time.”

Again, Zoe nodded. She reached forwards to the small table. Last time, it held a number of refreshments. Neither she nor Hank had actually consumed any. This time, nothing but a few glasses of water and a large pitcher sat on the table. In terms of food, anyway.

The centerpiece this time around was a large green crystal. Roughly the size of a bowling ball, though oblong and with sharp angled ends. Like a plumb-bob with points on both ends.

“This,” Zoe said, picking up the large crystal, “is crystallized magic.” Although the size of a bowling ball, the crystal was earth essence. As such, it was heavy. Really heavy. Zoe cheated with a little bit of air mage telekinesis to lighten the load. Had she not, lifting it would have taken both hands and a great deal of strain. Something that would be entirely unsightly for live television.

Really, whoever designed the set should have used crystallized air essence. The size would be no less impressive yet she could have balanced the whole thing on her little finger.

“It is fairly easy to make through a simple alchemical process, though they’re never made this big normally. Crystallized essence is essentially distilled magic and is used in various potions. Tonight, however, these are the objectives of the event.”

She hefted the crystal up, putting a little more show in the effort than she was actually feeling.

“This is essence of earth. It is quite heavy. Imagine a bowling ball of the same size and you can imagine the weight fairly accurately. However, it is only one of four essences in use tonight.”

She replaced the crystal on the pedestal and clasped her hands in her lap.

“Water, fire, and air make up the rest. Water is cold. Normally we use smaller crystals and they feel like holding ice cubes. One this size has a very real chance of causing frostbite. Fire is just the opposite. Even smaller ones are handled with gloves. For these larger ones, I urge our contestants to exercise caution while handling them. Crystallized air is the opposite of earth. Despite being the same size, they will be almost buoyant in the surrounding air.”

Hank reached forward and, using two hands, grabbed the earth crystal by either end. He managed to lift it, though the strain was evident on his purpling face.

“You weren’t kidding about that weight,” he said as he set it back down.

“Each of our five teams will be given three crystals, which kind will be selected randomly through a lottery draw. They must protect these crystals while attempting to retrieve the crystals from enemy schools.”

“Like a game of capture the flag.”

“With a little twist. For the first twenty minutes, only one member of each school may leave their starting location. He or she may scout out other schools’ camps and, if the opportunity presents itself, steal one or more of their crystals. Of course, with seven members from each school participating and six stuck at their starting locations, it will likely wind up as one versus six. Not the greatest odds, though if they manage to get far enough away from the camp, the pursuing school will not be able to chase the thief without disqualifying themselves.

“The six who cannot leave camp are generally expected to be constructing defenses. Traps, fortresses, pitfalls, and what have you. It isn’t required, but schools who leave their crystals lying about will likely not have the success that others will enjoy.

“Beyond the first twenty minutes, the number of students a school can field will increase by two every five minutes up until all students are allowed to leave at the thirty minute mark. Then the game begins in earnest. The winner will be determined by which school has collected the most crystals after two hours. Just losing a crystal or two does not put anyone out of the game. Though severe injuries or other incapacitations will result in a student being withdrawn for the remainder of the match for medical purposes.”

Hank rubbed his hands together with a grin. “Sounds exciting. And we’re slated to begin in just under an hour. So stay tuned,” he said, looking right at the camera. “After these messages from our sponsors, we will go through the schools and introduce the contestants.”

He held his grin at the camera for just a moment until the live light turned off.

Zoe sighed, sinking into her chair. That had been a fairly long-winded explanation. And the student introductions would just be longer.

She reached under the table and pulled out a small notebook.

At least I did research on the other schools’ students this time.

— — —

Juliana clapped Irene on the back. “There you go. You got it.”

Allowing herself a small smile, Irene stared at her earthen castle. The highest tower only came up to her knees. However, it spread out at least as wide as Saija’s wingspan.

And wasn’t it a sad thought that she was measuring things in terms of Saija’s body.

But, though it was small, it was sturdy. Kicking it with all her might only knocked off small chunks despite it being constructed from dirt. It was like kicking rock. Actually, it wasn’t just like kicking rock. Her foot stung from having kicked it so hard.

“Now let me tell you a little trick my mom does. I can only do it if I’m concentrating really hard. Not really something I can do in battle yet because I’m not good enough at water magic.”

“And you think I am?”

“No, but you have teammates. Six of them. Unless something seriously went weird, at least one should be a water mage. Or an experienced non-fire mage capable of using water magic.”

“Three of them are demons. I don’t know about the other two, but I’m pretty sure that Saija doesn’t know any thaumaturgy.”

Juliana frowned, but held up a few fingers. “That still leaves three others.”

“I think Henry is a water mage, but he hates everyone else on the team. Including me.”

Narrowing her eyes, Juliana turned and glanced around the room. It didn’t take her long to spot Henry—he was off in a corner all on his own, avoiding everyone’s gaze as he looked through that notebook of his.

“Well, I’ll tell you anyway. If he wants to play as a team, you can get him to help you out.”

As she spoke, Juliana pulled out her wand. Which Irene found strange. Juliana tended to use her rings even during class. In fact, Irene hadn’t even known that she still carried a wand.

Irene must have had a strange look on her face because Juliana shrugged. “I’m not very good at water magic. Wands are easier than rings.”

Juliana swished her wand and gave it a little flick with her wrist. At first nothing happened. Then Irene noticed dark patches spreading across the surface of the rock-like dirt castle. Some patches even began sweating.

“Any earth mage worth their salt will be able to wave their wand and collapse anything you build. You can fight against it, but then it comes down to a battle of willpower. And you have to concentrate. Not really the best thing if you’re being attacked by several people.”

Once the castle was thoroughly soaked, Juliana snapped her wrist again. Small hexagons of ice started spreading over various points on the castle. The hexagons grew, connecting with each other. The entire surface of the castle had iced over after a few seconds.

“But if you or another water mage infuses the building with water and then carefully freezes it, it will hold its shape even while under attack. Not forever, of course. But it should work long enough for you to fight whoever is attacking you.”

Testing the strength, Irene kicked at the walls of the castle again. This time, not even little chunks of dirt fell off the sides.

“Huh. Neat.”

“The water part has to be done carefully. If you put too much water into it, the whole thing will wash away. Too little and the structure will become brittle. Freeze it too fast and everything will crack and break.”

“Sounds complicated. And not really worth it unless you’ve practiced.”

Irene glanced over Juliana’s shoulder to where Henry sat. He had actually looked up from his book to watch what Juliana had been doing, but made no move to actually come closer. As soon as Irene met his eyes, he shook his head and buried his nose in his notebook.

“And I doubt Henry has practiced much.”

“Probably. There is also a thing you can do with fire magic, but it requires making clay and then firing it like in a kiln. Takes a while. Probably not useful for tonight’s event.”

Irene shrugged. The water thing didn’t sound all that useful either. Still, she got a few tips for both quick constructions and sturdy constructions. Both should help out.

“Fifteen minutes remaining,” a voice said, echoing over the intercom system in the dueling hall. “Contestants should prepare to move to the starting area. Repeat, fifteen minutes remaining for the preparation period.”

“Well, guess that’s my cue,” Juliana said. “Maybe you can get Henry to practice with you for the last few minutes.”

“Yeah,” Irene said as she glanced over Juliana’s shoulder again, voice flat. “Maybe.”

“Everyone else is already at my mom’s house to watch the show on her big-screen.”

“Thanks for staying and giving me tips.”

“No problem,” Juliana said with a wave of her hand as she turned to leave. “Give ’em hell.”

“Oh, we’ll give them Hell alright.” Saija fluttered in from nowhere, landing just to Irene’s side.

It actually made her jump a little.

Juliana just chuckled as she walked off.

Saija offered a casual wave before she spun around and stared at Irene with the intensity of a thousand suns.

“So, I was just talking with Neuro. I wanted to be the first one to go wreak havoc on our enemies’ bases but then he called me a fool! Can you believe that? Anyway, I said I should go because I could fly and cover more ground, scout out the enemy, and return with good information all before the second group can leave. You know what he did?” She put her hands on her hips and stared.

Irene wasn’t sure if she should answer or just wait for her to continue her diatribe.

Waiting turned out to be the right answer.

“He sprouted wings!” Saija’s wings spread out as she shouted. “Big fluffy raven wings. All covered in dark black feathers. It looked really nice—not as nice as my wings, of course—but I didn’t know he could do that. He never grew wings before. And then he was like ‘I’ll be the first one out. Why don’t you be the last one? Be our last-minute reinforcements in the field and protect our base with your mighty prowess until then.’ Which sounds nice but I mean, he just called me a fool. I’m not so sure I–”

“Saija,” Irene said, placing a finger on the demon’s lips. “Calm down. Why don’t you stay with me? If you’re the first one out, we’ll be separated.”

As much as Irene hated to admit it, she was really grateful that Saija had taken a liking to her. As friendly as Saija might be, she was still a demon. And demons were strong. If Irene stuck next to Saija, she would probably be a whole lot safer than if she were on her own.

“Yeah, I thought about that. What am I supposed to do around our base? I can’t build fancy sand castles,” she said, waving a hand at Irene’s castle.

“You can protect the base from anyone who shows up. We might fall under attack early on.” She leaned in close and whispered, “You heard the rumors that Faultline and the Nod Complex were going to team up to ensure we lost this one.”

“Who said that?”

“Eva. She said it at the last meeting.”

“Oh,” she said, shoulders slumped in slight dejection. “It’s probably true then.” After a moment of keeping her shoulders slumped, she suddenly straightened her back. “Oh! It’s probably true then.” A low chuckle escaped from the back of her throat as a shark-toothed grin spread across her face. “That means two people are going to try to surprise attack us early on?”

“Ah, I guess so? They might wait for reinforcements.”

“The first reinforcements would mean six total people could attack us. If we send two people away as soon as we can, it would be six versus four.” She chuckled again and started flapping her wings. “I have to go talk to Sebastian. I’m sure we can come up with a little surprise for them.”

Saija flew off towards the sharply dressed demon.

Which left Irene on her own once again. Juliana really hadn’t needed to take off quite so early. There were fifteen minutes left. Surely she had more tips to impart. But Irene couldn’t complain too much. She had been the one to stop Juliana from heading off with Eva and the others.

Irene glanced over at Henry. He was the only one who was off on his own. Everyone else was talking with each other or obviously practicing something or other. He just read his notebook.

She had half a mind to leave him to it and continue practicing what Juliana had shown her—just because she did it once in a low stress situation did not mean that she would be able to rapidly build a full-sized fortress with all the pressure of the event on her—but maybe Juliana had a point. With ginger steps, she approached.

“What are you reading?” she asked. She had to ask. He didn’t acknowledge her on her way over and even after hovering for a few seconds, he didn’t say anything.

It still took another moment before Henry sighed. “Just information I’ve collected on Nod Complex’s inhuman students.”

Inhuman? Irene wasn’t actually sure if that was racist or not. It was true, but nonhuman seemed a better term to use. Inhuman made it sound like they were inhuman monsters, or something. She probably wouldn’t have questioned it at all had Henry not cared about all the demons around the school, but he obviously didn’t like them.

“Anything interesting?”

“I just don’t want to be surprised by strange magics. Apparently they have a sandman, capable of putting people to sleep with a touch. Don’t let yourself get touched.”

“I see.” That did sound worrisome. “Anything else?”

“Nothing especially troublesome,” he admitted with a grudge. “The vampire and the dryad won’t be participating. Thank the heavens for that.”

“Well, in that case, did you want to try practicing magic with me? Juliana was showing me all about how–”

“I was watching.”

Irene flinched back. This was a mistake. She should have just gone with Saija and talked with Sebastian. And wasn’t that a sad thought, that she found herself able to get along better with demons than humans. Obviously Henry wouldn’t like her. He didn’t like demons and she was friends with Saija. Was she friends with Saija? Probably.

Henry snapped his book shut, causing Irene to jump again.

“I suppose we might try it. So long as it is a purely thaumaturgical exercise, I don’t have problems with it.”

“It is,” Irene said quickly. Too quickly. “I use earth magic and you use water. Nothing else.”

“Very well.” He pushed himself off the floor, using the wall to help him get to his feet. “Build up a wall and let’s see if we can get this to work.”

Irene smiled as she pulled out her wand. She could feel the strain in her smile, but it didn’t matter. There were about ten minutes until the start of the event. As soon as it started… well, she would still have to interact with him. But there would be others around as well.

Other demons and people who had bound demons. The kind of people he didn’t like.

Slapping her cheeks, Irene shook her head. It wasn’t like he was going to attack them. Or her. They just needed to practice.

— — —

Juliana hurried through the empty streets of Brakket City. Fifteen minutes before the students had to be ready to start. Probably another fifteen minutes to draw straws for the crystals. Maybe another five to ten for them to get into position.

In other words, plenty of time for her to get home.

She wished she could teleport. Even blinking would be nice, but her mother wouldn’t teach her until she was older. How old seemed to increase with every year. It couldn’t be that difficult or dangerous. Eva had learned how years ago. Sure, she had mentioned almost losing a limb once or twice, but that was hardly a big deal. If Juliana lost a limb, maybe she could petition Arachne for one of hers.

Yeah right. Her father would never agree to that and she highly doubted that her mother would be any more open-minded.

But still, Eva only almost lost limbs. Surely she could do it.

Juliana paused and focused on an empty patch of sidewalk ten feet in front of her. She knew that theory. Books in Brakket Library held the answers to most everything she had ever wanted to look up.

Shaking her head, she decided against actually trying. If she were trying with other people around, at least she would have immediate help if she left her arm behind. Or worse, if she left her clothes behind. Brakket was a fairly dead city, but there had been more cameras around than ever before. She wasn’t Eva. She didn’t walk around naked and think nothing of it. It would be absolutely mortifying if someone recorded her teleporting out of her clothes and posted it all over the internet.

With a sigh, she continued on her way home.

Only to find her sigh catching in her throat. In an instant, Juliana’s armor turned to liquid. Metal encased her whole head and solidified into a hard helmet.

Something landed behind her with a loud clank. Something heavy and metallic. A chill ran up her spine and it wasn’t because of the cold evening air.

Juliana turned slowly.

The hunter stood behind her. The one with bright red hair and an eye patch. The one Eva had attacked on the roof. The one who, by all appearances, had been a complete invalid just a few weeks before. She stood in a suit of rough armor.

Unlike the now deceased armored hunter, this woman’s was raw and bulky. Put together in a rush and without proper fitting. There was no paint and no finish. Just rough steel and rusted iron. She lacked a helmet, though she had some kind of a molded circlet around her forehead that Juliana was sure hadn’t been there the last time they met.

“You will come with me,” the woman said, “or you will die.”

Juliana clenched her teeth together. What to do? Run? Attack? Obviously she wasn’t going anywhere with the woman. There was a crazed look in her eyes. Her wild red hair hung around her face making her look all the more deranged. If she went with the woman, she would probably die anyway.

With a brush of her fingers, Juliana could destroy the woman’s armor. Eva had said that she had three holes in her spine, paralyzing her. The armor must be holding her up, letting her move. One didn’t just cure spinal nerve damage in a handful of weeks. Especially because the original injury had been inflicted early summer. That had been months ago. She would have cured herself before launching their most recent attack.

Right. Destroy armor. Disable woman. She might teleport away as she had before, but at least Juliana would get away. Then she could warn Eva and her mother and anyone else that this hunter was still hunting. She didn’t know why she was the one being hunted, but that hardly mattered now.

Juliana charged forward.

The woman stood still for just one second. As soon as that second passed, her face changed. Her lips split straight across her face, giving her a maniacal crescent moon of a smile. Her single eye widened but the pupil shrunk to a tiny pinprick.

Her armor moved. And the woman with it.

The next thing Juliana knew, she was looking at the twilight sky. Except… she had just been charging at the woman. Wha–

Juliana crashed into the ground, rolling and tumbling twenty feet down the street. Everything ached. The liquid membrane between her skin and her solid armor acted as a minor cushion, but it wasn’t enough.

She couldn’t even get up before something gripped her ankle. Juliana found herself swinging up through the air in a high arc before having her back slammed into the ground.

Delirious laughter echoed down the street, the last thing Juliana heard as she fell into unconsciousness.

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009.016

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Eva couldn’t be more pleased with the way things were going.

The second event was coming up in two days. She didn’t have to participate in it. The ritual circle was nearly finished. It wouldn’t be done by the time of the second event, but would definitely be done before the third. Especially if they decided to have a longer break between events for the December holidays.

With Anise and Chris both helping, their progress had been through the roof. Of course, Eva still needed to find people for the ritual itself, but she was actually relatively certain that wouldn’t be much of a problem at all. A quick check-in with Vektul let Eva know that despite having the eye implanted in their chest, both nuns should work just fine. Probably.

He actually hadn’t been absolutely certain. If she could, Eva would try to get fully normal humans. Just in case.

Still, no demon hunters had shown up to accost Eva. Or anyone else, for that matter. No laser beams had destroyed the ritual circle, or her prison, or the school, or anything else. No nuns had shown up aside from the two expected ones, though Ylva hadn’t gone to the inquest in their place just yet. It wasn’t scheduled until just before New Years. And Sawyer was still dead as far as Eva knew.

Not even the vampire had shown up to accost her. Though she had caught him staring at her a few times during lunches or around the halls. It was enough that Eva had taken to either skipping lunch or eating outside. She didn’t eat much anyway and the food served by Brakket Academy often made her lose her appetite even if she did feel peckish.

Since both Chris and Anise were more or less following her around outside school hours, they probably served as a decent deterrent to the vampire as well.

Despite everything going exactly as Eva hoped, she couldn’t help but feel a niggling concern in the back of her mind. Everything was going too well. The metaphorical other shoe was going to drop. It had to. Nothing had ever gone so well for Eva before.

She didn’t know what the shoe was going to be or where it would fall from. She didn’t even have any proper means of preparing for it.

“And that’s why you need to watch out for anything suspicious. Don’t go anywhere alone. Keep an eye out after dark, especially outside the main school building and the Infinite Courtyard. Even take care inside your rooms.”

“Paranoid much?”

Eva narrowed her eyes at Chris. Considering how she had acted before Ylva agreed to help them, she was the last person Eva wanted to get a lecture on paranoia from.

“Just be careful.” Eva pointed to Irene, Saija, and Chris. “Especially you three. Who knows what Redford is going to do. If he puts you into a position where you can easily be ambushed, things could go bad fast if one of our enemies decides to make a big deal out of the event.

“Other than that, take tomorrow off. Rest up or prepare for the event. Both. Whatever you want.”

“Take tomorrow off? Since when did you become our boss?”

Juliana’s tone implied that she was joking or otherwise trying to lighten the conversation. Still, something in her voice made Eva feel like she wasn’t being completely humorous.

Her frustration wasn’t wholly incomprehensible. She had been working for the longest amount of time and was easily the hardest worker of the four. Even taking into account her frequent breaks to spar with Arachne, she still got more done than any two of the others combined.

Before Eva could actually comment, Irene stepped up to Juliana.

“Could I ask you a few questions?”

“Sure? You don’t have to ask my permission.”

“Well,” she paused with a glance towards the nuns, “it’s about the event.”

Chris put her hands on her hips. “Oh I see how it is,” she said, turning and walking away. Anise hesitated for a moment before following after her. “Plot your strategies,” she called over her shoulder, “they won’t help you. We might be working on this nonsense together, but we are still enemies.”

As they walked away from the ritual circle, Eva turned back to the other two humans. “If you’re going to be discussing the event, I’m going to take off.”

“Hold on,” Juliana said, grabbing Eva’s arm. “Where are you going?”

“Catherine has been texting me all day. Something back at the prison that she wants to show me, apparently.”

Juliana gave her something of a pointed look before giving a quick glance towards Irene.

Repressing a sigh, Eva said, “Did you want to come along as well? Irene and Saija can come too.” She paused as she tried to remember if either had actually been to the prison before. “I might need a few drops of blood though.”

“Blood? I–”

Saija decided to talk right over Irene’s cry of alarm. “Your mysterious prison? We’d love to go. Wouldn’t we?” She wrapped an arm around Irene’s shoulders. “Irene can ask her questions there.”

Irene, even with her arms all locked up by Saija, shook her head back and forth.

“It shouldn’t be anything big. Catherine said that it wasn’t vital. But it has been a while since I actually visited because of all this,” Eva said, spreading her arms out in a gesture towards the ritual field. “At the very least, I need to make sure that Catherine and Devon haven’t burned the place down.”

Saija perked up at the mention of burning. “Sounds exciting,” she said. “I think I know the place. There’s another group of demons there, right?” At Eva’s shallow nod, Saija grinned. She scooped up Irene before Irene could protest and spread her wings. “We’ll meet you there!”

Eva cupped her hands to her mouth and called out after them as they took off. “Don’t go past the walls without giving me blood! You’ll explode!”

She was fairly sure that she heard a shriek from Irene, but the two disappeared over the forest canopy too quick to tell.

Looking back to Juliana, Eva grinned with a shrug of her shoulders. “I’m sure they’ll be fine.”

“We should probably hurry.”

“I had been planning on teleporting…” she said, trailing off with a glance towards Arachne.

The spider demon clicked her tongue. “I suppose I can carry Juliana. Did you want a ride as well?”

Eva opened her mouth, about to decline. Even if she didn’t teleport out there, running on her own wasn’t much of a problem.

How long had it been since she actually let Arachne carry her? A long time. Maybe even before Arachne had given her legs away. Since then, Eva had always run on her own. Or teleported.

“You know what? Sure.”

A smile spread across Arachne’s face. One that Eva couldn’t help but mimic.

“Alright,” Arachne said, growing to her full form. “Hang on tight.”

— — —

Catherine took a few dainty steps around the latest version of her personal transformation circle. It was a bit beyond a mere ritual circle. Instead of just increasing some abstract level of power, this circle should actually grant her traits of other demons involved with it.

Should. So long as she programmed it correctly.

She and Devon had both gone over every inch of it, both in theory and in the actual physical circle. Neither had found anything wrong. At least, not with the latest version. The first concept would probably have killed everyone involved. Potentially permanently for the demons. But they worked out that little kink.

Probably.

Unfortunately, the way the transformation circle was now set up severely limited the number of demons that Catherine could use. Lucy, for example, was right out. Catherine had absolutely no intentions of becoming a tentacle monster if she could help it. Not even if Lucy was the most powerful demon currently in the mortal realm.

Which she wasn’t.

That title currently belonged to either Eva or Ylva. She wasn’t entirely sure which. If Devon were willing to do another treatment, it would probably be Eva without a doubt. Tragically for her, he was still wanting to hold off and ensure Eva had stabilized before doing anything more.

And tragically for Catherine, Ylva wasn’t willing to participate. Catherine had done everything that she could to ensure that the donor demons would be perfectly safe, but Ylva had still declined.

Eva wasn’t entirely demon. With the old version, that hadn’t mattered so much. This one… she needed to do a few tests first.

Never in a million centuries would Catherine have believed that she would actually want Zagan around. He would have been the optimal subject.

Even though no other demons could be summoned, Zagan wasn’t other demons. Catherine had a theory that if she really tried, she probably could summon him. Or Devon could; Catherine wasn’t interested in ending up on Keeper’s hit list. Especially not with a doll potentially still running around the mortal realm.

However, she didn’t want Zagan around quite that badly and Devon was absolutely unwilling to even entertain the idea.

So she was really hoping that Eva would work out.

Aside from Eva, there were a number of demons back at the school that she had her eye on.

The one demon she could feel coming closer to the prison was not one of them.

With a drawn out sigh, she stepped away from her transformation circle. Eva was rapidly approaching as well. Which was good for her test, but she wasn’t so enthusiastic about having another succubus wandering around.

“Couldn’t she have brought the more worthwhile demons?” Catherine mumbled to herself.

She spread her wings and prepared to take off to meet the guests. It had been weeks since she had hidden her demonic form and weeks since she had worn proper clothing as well. There were a number of distinct advantages to living so far from prudish humans. Devon was the only human around and he didn’t care in the slightest.

Which Catherine found slightly insulting. It was nice that she didn’t have to fend off any advances, but at the same time, he didn’t even act surprised when she had first gone without clothes. Not even the slightest blush on his cheeks. To him, she may as well be a talking wooden board.

Of course, there were disadvantages as well.

Eva’s prison was habitable. Mostly. With runework, it had lighting and running water, heating and cooling, and plenty of space for relaxation or experiments. But that was the end of the amenities. It did not have much in the way of proper electricity or internet connections. Just keeping her cellphone charged was a nightmare.

To say nothing about unwinding by slaughtering countless humans on the various multiplayer games Catherine had taken a liking to.

Ah the sacrifices she made in the name of self-improvement.

Of course, with her being completely free of a contract, she should easily be able to disappear into the mortal world and live out a life of decadence once satisfied with the progress of her rituals.

Touching down on the wall of the prison, Catherine narrowed her eyes as she scanned the horizon. It didn’t take long to pinpoint the flying succubus. Despite it being early December, the sky was bright blue. Save for the purple streaks.

The succubus was the only moving dot on the sky.

As she got closer and as Catherine squinted just a little more, she saw something carried in the succubus’ arms. Something familiar.

Catherine couldn’t help but grin. She hadn’t toyed with Irene in quite some time. Maybe she could thank the other succubus just for that.

Although…

Catherine’s smile slipped. Just what was Irene doing with another succubus anyway?

Crossing her arms, Catherine tapped her foot against the wall as she waited for them to get closer. Only to deepen her frown as they pulled a tight u-turn away from the wall. It took her a moment to realize just why they had done so. Neither had been to the prison before. Obviously they had been warned of Eva’s wards.

Squinting her eyes more, Catherine found Eva. Or, more accurately, Arachne. The massive spider wasn’t too far behind Irene despite being land based. She had to wonder just how big of a head start Arachne had.

They made it up to Irene just as her feet touched the ground outside the prison walls. Some talking went on between the groups—which also contained that other human Eva was fond of hanging out with—before Eva drew some blood from each of the newcomers.

A jump and a blink had her up on the wall next to Catherine. “I’ll be right back,” Eva said. Without giving time for a response, she blinked off towards the women’s ward.

Catherine considered following for a bare moment before shaking her head. She looked back down to Irene—who was in the middle of arguing with the other succubus.

Irene said something to the succubus only to turn away with a huff. As she turned, she finally noticed Catherine.

Putting on a wide grin, Catherine gave her a wave.

She didn’t seem all that happy to see Catherine. Which just made Catherine want to toy with her more.

Eva blinked back after only a minute or two and skipped past Catherine once again.

As everybody climbed on top of Arachne—including the succubus—Catherine hopped off the wall and made her way back to the transformation circle.

The demons, humans, and Eva joined her as soon as Arachne scaled the wall.

“Don’t go into any of those buildings,” Eva said, pointing out the cell blocks. “Actually, don’t go into any buildings except the women’s ward. And inside the women’s ward, don’t go into my room.”

The succubus started to jump off Arachne’s back without giving more than a hum in response. Eva gripped her by the chin and yanked her head over to lock eyes with her.

“Am I understood, Saija?”

Now panicking and squirming, the succubus nodded her head up and down as much as she was able to with Eva’s hand clamped down on her chin.

Eva smiled.

Against Catherine’s will, she actually felt herself shudder. Eva’s smile was not a happy or genuine smile. It was one that promised pain if her rules were broken.

There was something of a saying among demons. One always had to be wary of the polite ones. If a demon was being polite, it generally meant one of two things. Either they were mentally unhinged or they had enough power to back up their words without needing to resort to open threats and violence.

Sometimes both cases were true at once.

While Eva’s smile and voice glowed with politeness, her actions weren’t quite there. A truly scary demon would have stopped Saija with her sweet voice alone and not have needed to grab hold. Still, she was shaping up to be a fine demon. Though Catherine couldn’t help but wonder if Eva had even noticed.

“Good,” Eva said as she released Saija. “Then you’re free to wander around as you will. Just don’t break anything.” An subtle softening of her features crossed Eva’s face as she turned to look at Irene. “If you have any questions, you can ask Juliana. She knows her way around.”

With that said, Eva blinked off Arachne’s back and helped both Irene and Juliana down.

“What are you going to be doing?”

Eva glanced to the blond girl with a shrug. “Finding out what Catherine wants. Maybe paying a visit to Devon if he is around at the moment. After?” She shrugged again. “Honestly, sad as it is, there isn’t much here at the moment. Probably just head back to the dormitory. We shouldn’t worry Shalise and Shelby by being out too late.”

“I’ll send out some texts, just in case.”

“Sounds good,” Eva said, starting to turn to Catherine. Out of the corner of her eye, she caught Saija wandering off through the prison. With a sigh, she turned back to Juliana, leaned in close, and whispered something that Catherine couldn’t quite catch.

Though Catherine could guess at what she was saying. The succubus obviously required a chaperon.

“Anyway, show them around I guess. I’ll catch up with you guys later.”

As Eva left the humans behind and walked up to her, Catherine sighed. She would have to speak with Irene later. Perhaps while Eva was speaking with Devon.

If he was even around. Now that she thought about it, she hadn’t seen Devon in a few days. He kept whining about needing a new test subject. Maybe he had finally gone off to find one.

Oh well. There would surely be time.

“So,” Eva said, “you’re looking well.”

Catherine had to suppress a little preening at the praise.

She was a succubus. It was in her blood to be vain.

“You as well. Sort of.”

“Sort of?”

“I liked your hair better when it was longer.”

Eva sighed as she ran her claw through the short hairs on her head.

“It’s a work in progress. So, I got your text,” Eva said as she leaned around Catherine to see the inscriptions on the cement platform. “What did you need?”

“Welcome to Transformation Circle version twelve point oh-seven.”

Eva looked it over for a few minutes before shaking her head. “I don’t know enough about the previous version… versions? To tell what is different about this one.”

“Well, it needs only one donor demon this time around. In fact, it can’t have more. There is no room for them. The total time it takes to run should be drastically shorter than previous versions and it shouldn’t knock the center person out. Both improvements should be applicable to your treatment circle I think. With Devon’s approval.”

“That sounds nice.”

“However, this circle is specifically keyed to me. If someone else sits in the middle, I don’t know what might happen. I can’t recommend it. Aside from that, a lot of the code is the same.”

“Code?”

Catherine’s grin widened. “I’m so glad you asked. Ritual circles work a lot like programming an application on a computer. They have their own language, essentially. You write them out with a goal in mind. It is purely theoretical at the moment, but I’ve been looking into the possibility of developing a computer programming language that I can use to write spells. Even rituals. All, after some programming, at the touch of a button.”

With both hands on her hips, Catherine stood with her chest puffed out and her wings spread wide. Come now, she thought, praise me!

“Huh,” Eva said, face blank.

Catherine felt an eyebrow twitching. She waited for just a moment, just in case Eva was about to say something slightly more profound.

She didn’t.

Huh? That’s it? I can potentially revolutionize all spell casting for mortals and demons alike and all you have to say about it is huh?”

“Sorry. I can type essays on a computer. Beyond that, I don’t know anything. And I know even less about computer code.”

Catherine let her shoulders droop. Her wings sagged behind her.

“Don’t worry,” Eva said, patting her arm. “I’m sure it’s amazing. It’s my fault I don’t see it.” Despite her words, she was sounding fairly patronizing. As if it were Catherine’s theory that was bad. “Maybe if you talked with Zoe, she could properly appreciate your genius. She might be able to help you too.”

“I suppose,” Catherine said as she scratched at the base of her horn, brushing a lock of hair out of her face. It wasn’t a bad idea. The theory professor was fairly intelligent. For a human. “I’ll send her a text sometime.”

“Good. Now, was that everything?”

“Actually, I wanted to run a test on you. It should only take a few seconds.” Catherine thumbed over her shoulder towards the transformation circle. “If you just sit down in the donor circle, I’ll get it started up.”

“Alright. I can do that,” she said, stepping over to the proper spot without even questioning Catherine’s intentions.

It was weird. Demons didn’t normally trust one another like that.

Shaking her head, Catherine pulled out a long rod of void metal from its holder near the edge of the circle. A slight flap of her wings carried her straight to the center of the circle where she would normally sit. She pressed the rod into a small hole in the ground, leaving it standing up to roughly her waist.

Rod in place, Catherine flew back to the edge of the circle.

“What’s that for?”

“A stand in for me. Don’t worry about it. Are you ready?”

“I guess so.”

Catherine nodded. Pouring a tiny portion of magic into the circle had everything lighting up. A black wispy tendril stretched out from Eva and connected with the void metal rod.

The end.

The ritual circle powered down. The tendril disappeared.

And Eva looked up at her with a raised eyebrow.

“That was it?”

“I told you it would only be for a few seconds.”

“Well, yeah but… I expected something a little more… dazzling. What now?”

“Now? I’ve got a number of tests to do on the rod,” she said, fluttering forwards to grab it. “If all the tests go well, we can do the transformation ritual for real.”

Catherine paused at the rod. Her fingers hovered over it for a moment.

She could feel the heat coming off it. And see it. Little hazy lines in the air distorted the neat lines of the transformation circle.

Which was odd. Void metal didn’t get hot. Ever. She could leave a ring of it in a crucible capable of melting steel and still be able to touch it the second she pulled it out.

What might have caused that?

“On second thought,” she said, backing away. “I think I’ll test it later. Maybe it is time to go visit Irene. I haven’t teased her in so long.”

Eva made a face. Catherine wasn’t sure what the face was supposed to mean, but it didn’t matter. The face turned back to normal after a quick shake of Eva’s head.

“Hey, I’ve got my own ritual circle I’m working on. Maybe you would like to come see it soon. You can even visit Zoe about your computer project at the same time.”

“Your own ritual?”

“I’ll let you see if you can figure out what it does. It’s supposed to be secret, but it requires a few humans and a few demons. So it can’t be completely secret much longer.”

“Demons and humans?” Catherine said with a frown. It probably wasn’t a copy of Devon’s treatment circles. Not with plural humans. But she couldn’t think of anything else that it might be for. “I think I’d like to see that.”

At the very least, it might be interesting.

<– Back | Index | Next –>


009.015

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Ylva and Nel popped into the room, hand in hand. Nel in her dark robes and Ylva in her white sheer dress.

Eva jumped. Still leaning back in her chair with her feet propped up, she just about lost her balance and fell backwards. She managed to save herself with a quick blink to her feet just in front of the table.

To the best of her memory, Ylva had never teleported on her own before. She didn’t know why she hadn’t expected her to be able to. Given Ylva’s power level, it would be more surprising if she couldn’t teleport. Even Catherine could teleport.

She had been expecting Ylva to walk over from her home. Something that would take a few minutes. Eva hadn’t even put away her cellphone yet.

The two nuns were faring less well. Eva had been planning on warning them of Ylva’s appearance. With how fast Ylva had shown up, she hadn’t had the chance.

Both had jumped back with their eyes burning. A battle-axe made of white light had formed in Anise’s hand while Chris had lightning crackling at her fingertips again.

Eva was just about to blink between them and Ylva to keep anything unfortunate from happening when Ylva’s lips twitched into a frown.

The light disappeared from the nuns’ eyes. The lightning and axe faded into nothingness. They both jolted backwards as if physically struck. Anise actually stumbled as she took a few steps backwards in an attempt to retain her balance.

Ylva drew in a deep breath.

Eva stepped between them before she could say anything. Knowing her, she was probably about to bellow out a command for them to kneel or some such.

“Wait wait wait,” Eva said, holding up one hand palm out towards Ylva and another towards Anise and Chris. “I didn’t get a chance to warn them that you were coming. And you just sort of popped into a tense situation. So don’t hold them being startled against them. They need help, not a fight.”

“Help?” Chris just about shrieked from behind Eva. Her teeth grit together as soon as she spoke. Both of her hands were pressed up against her eyes with her fingers rubbing her scalp. “That demon is the one who killed the inquisitors.”

“Yeah, she is,” Eva said. “Who better to protect Anise than someone who has already proven themselves capable?”

“Eva,” Ylva intoned with her deep voice. “Explain why you have brought these two before Us.”

Feeling her mouth dry out a little, Eva swallowed. Ylva did not sound happy. She hadn’t minded when Nel asked for asylum. Though had she made Nel kneel? Nel might have knelt on her own after prompting from Eva and Zoe. She couldn’t actually remember.

Maybe she should have just let Ylva kneel them.

“Alright,” Eva said slowly. Might as well start explaining from the start. “If you want to take a seat, it might be a few minutes.”

Eva had considered leaving. Juliana and Irene both were still out at the ritual field, after all. While they shouldn’t be expecting her right away because of her excuse to find more help, she still wanted to get out there and at least supervise if not help out as well.

She had been planning on leaving initially. Perhaps even before Ylva arrived. Her main goal in bringing Ylva to meet the two nuns had mostly been to dump the problem off on somebody else. But then Ylva had ordered her to tell the story of what was going on.

And now she had to admit that she also wanted to stick around just to find out what was going to happen.

Nel, a paranoid former nun and augur, had nodded her head every time Eva mentioned the possibility of the Elysium Order being mildly unpleasant towards its members. She would be doing absolutely nothing to convince either of the two nuns that they would be safe if they submitted to the inquest.

Especially because Chris seemed somewhat paranoid on her own.

Ylva, a demon and servant of Death, had something of a habit of collecting nuns. So long as Nel and Alicia were enough to form a habit.

At least Chris and Anise weren’t going to be tortured into serving her. Probably.

Eva would be lying if she said she was upset about Alicia’s death. Alicia had been… creepy. And not like normal creepy, which most people Eva associated with were. Eva had been almost certain that Alicia would snap some day and try to kill everyone. Especially Nel. Possibly including Ylva.

Throughout Eva’s explanation, helped along at certain points by Chris and Anise, Ylva had remained silent. Her cold eyes had followed Eva’s every move. She had only glanced away when Chris or Anise spoke up. They had never spoke for long. Never more than a word or two before Ylva’s glare had them falling silent and looking down at their laps.

Which Eva had found mildly annoying. This was their problem. Not hers.

But she made it through the explanation anyway.

“We see,” Ylva said slowly. She still wasn’t sounding happy. Then again, Ylva never sounded happy. At least she wasn’t sounding absolutely livid. “And these two children seek protection?”

Both shirked under her gaze.

Eva looked to both of them. She may have told their story, but they needed to be the ones who actually decided. They were perfectly capable of answering on their own. Not to mention, Eva didn’t want to assume. If they really wanted to, Eva wouldn’t stop them from going back to the Elysium Order. A poor idea in her opinion. Still, it was their choice.

It took a moment for them to realize that Eva wasn’t going to respond for them.

Anise looked up first. Blinking in confusion, she met Eva’s eyes with a slight tilt of her head.

Eva returned her gesture with a nod towards Ylva.

Meeting Ylva’s gaze lasted less than a second before Anise found her feet to be the most interesting things in the room once again. She stared for another few seconds before clenching her fists.

“I’m not going to sell my soul to a demon just to avoid the inquest.” Her eyes were still glued to the ground, but she spoke with a firm conviction.

Eva wasn’t sure if she was being literal or speaking metaphorically. “You shouldn’t worry about that,” Eva said, deciding to answer the literal worry. “Demons don’t care about your soul.”

“We could not claim a soul as recompense,” Ylva said. “Your soul is your own. Only Death may claim otherwise.”

“See,” Eva said with a smile. “No soul selling.”

“Payment to Us would be rendered through servitude.”

“I’m not going to be a slave,” Anise shouted. She actually stood up and turned a glare on Ylva, apparently more angry about that than about selling her soul. The glare only lasted an instant before she stumbled back. Chris pulled her back down to her seat.

Ylva didn’t react much beyond a simple frown.

Nel, on the other hand, went from slightly slouched to completely stiffening her back. Her eyebrows scrunched together as she narrowed her gaze. “I am not a slave,” she said, voice barely above a whisper. “I serve Lady Ylva of my own free will. Not because she forces me to, but because I am grateful to her. She saved me from a situation very much like your own.”

Her hand reached up to her throat. She brushed the tips of her fingers over the black band as her thumb ran over the small skull dangling from the front.

“If you want to go back and face the Elysium Order, that is your choice. Don’t disparage mine because of your ignorance.”

Eva found herself frowning as she stared at Nel. The augur was loyal to Ylva. Extremely so. Not a bad or fanatical kind of loyal either. For the most part, at least. But Eva hadn’t thought that she might get so upset about someone calling her a slave. Especially because, if memory served, Nel had thought the exact same thing upon accidentally indenturing herself to Ylva when they first met.

Obviously she had gotten over that little hang-up.

Ylva kept her face impassive and expressionless as she looked down at Nel. The two were seated side by side on the opposite end of the room from the nuns. Even seated, Ylva towered over everyone else.

For just a moment, nothing happened. Something passed between Nel and Ylva. Something that Eva was not privy to.

“They’re children,” Nel said after looking back to the two nuns. She shook her head. “They probably have family. Unless they’re willing to abandon everything, they won’t be able to work with us the way I do or Alicia did.”

After a curt nod of Ylva’s head, she stood. “Very well. We shall leave them be.”

“But,” Nel said with a slight sigh, “we should help them. If only because Eva thinks that the Elysium Order is biding its time until they can try to recover or kill me.”

Ylva went silent for a long minute. Nel shifted under her gaze, trying to look Ylva in the eye with confidence while fighting with her more subservient personality.

At least, that was what Eva got out of her expression.

The two nuns sat in their seats. Although they kept glancing to one another, neither made any attempt to speak. They looked more like two kids from Eva’s old school when they knew that they were in trouble and were sent to the principal’s office.

“What do you propose?”

Nel brightened, her fight ended as her lips curled into a small smile.

“We could go to the inquest in their place. Tell the Elysium Order, again, to leave us alone. Them as well,” she said with a slight nod towards the two girls. “Leave the inquisition with some ominous message like how we’re always watching them or something. That might discourage them from trying to come after me, at least.

“Of course, the Elysium Order probably won’t like it. They’ll probably be watching those two for a long time with a great deal of suspicion. But it is better than having their eyes torn out.”

“Acceptable,” Ylva said after another long silence. “Though We still require some payment. If they do not wish to serve Us, they will report to Us. Any rumors of the Elysium Order acting out against Ourself, you, or them.”

She clasped her hands together, not really in a clap, just cupping them as if she were hiding something. Both hands went palm down on the table. When she pulled back, two black rings with faint skulls engraved on the front had appeared on the table. A flick of her fingers sent them skidding across the table.

“Place them on your fingers,” she said as they came to a rest in front of the two nuns.

The two stared at the rings, then at each other, then back to the rings.

“Is it really that simple?” Anise said, holding her hand out in front of her as she examined the little black ring. “We put this on and all of our problems go away?”

Chris didn’t look half as convinced. She kept putting the ring on then taking it off, as if checking that such a thing was even possible. She almost tripped over a small depression in the dirt because her focus was on her ring.

Eva shook her head. “Nope. Not that easy. The ring won’t actually do much except ward off a few demons. Unless, of course, Ylva did something different this time. Maybe you can talk to her through them. You need a way to report in, after all.”

“I can’t believe we’re spying for a demon of all things.”

“Yeah,” Eva said with a slight shrug, “It isn’t that weird. The Elysium Order are undead specialists. I don’t see why you can’t work with a demon who also fights against the undead.”

What is Ylva?” Chris said, finally taking her attention off the ring. “What makes her trustworthy? Why does she fight undead? I saw it. It was just for an instant right when she appeared, but she was a skeleton. At first I thought it was just because of teleporting, but thinking back, Augur Stirling appeared like a normal person.”

Eva gave Chris a pointed look. Had she worn glasses, she probably would have been looking over the top rim. “Those are all questions you should have asked before accepting the rings. But,” Eva said, raising a hand before Chris could open her mouth, “Ylva is a hel. One ‘l’. A daughter of Hel, one of two demons who are Gods of Death.”

Both girls stilled. It was subtle as they both were still walking alongside Eva, but still noticeable. Especially to her sense of blood.

“Death?” Anise said in a barely audible whisper.

“Powers are a myth,” Chris said with a wave of her hand. “A tale to tell children to get them to behave. ‘Oooh, better be good or the leprechauns will drag you off to Knocknasheega.'” Rolling her eyes, she scoffed. “Please.”

Eva couldn’t help the grin that grew on her face.

“We live in a world full of demons and undead, dragons and magic, and you don’t think that there can be something else out there? Something larger than all of that? You don’t think Death takes offense to liches when they seal their soul within golden idols?”

“Of course there can be. But they aren’t watching us. A being equivalent to the mythical Powers wouldn’t care about Earth or people. Death wouldn’t care about a handful of random undead.”

Eva shook her head with a slight chuckle. “I wonder how long ago the Elysium Order was founded.”

“What does that have to do with anything?”

“Oh just something I was told about their origins. More specifically, from where they first got all those eyes in your chests.”

“You aren’t going to say a Power did it, are you?”

“Yes, actually. How do you think Ylva, a servant of Death, shut down your magic so hard that you actually physically felt it?”

Chris scoffed again. “She’s a demon. It wouldn’t surprise me if she had some anti-magic field that she could activate at will.”

Anise, trailing slightly behind, took a few quick steps to catch up. She cleared her throat. “Why was she able to block our connections?”

“That would probably be because the power that powers your power is the Power known as Death.”

“Preposterous.”

“Well,” Eva said with a shrug, “believe what you want to believe. But since you’re so adamant about not believing in Powers, perhaps you might help me construct a large ritual circle designed to do absolutely nothing at all?”

Both of them stopped cold and exchanged a look with each other.

“What are you talking about?” Chris asked. While her tone had been conversational, she had taken on a somewhat hostile stance. Her eyes were narrowed to thin slits.

Did the talk of a ritual circle spook them? Or the Powers? Both put together?

Eva wasn’t sure.

But she pointed at Chris. “You said you would do whatever I asked if I helped you with your problem. I’m in the middle of constructing a large ritual circle and could really use some help with it. So you’re going to help me. Right?”

“Wait, wait, wait,” Anise said, backing up a few steps. “We never agreed to anything. Except the spying.”

“Nope. I distinctly heard Chris saying she would do whatever I wanted. What I want is for you to help me with this thing. One of you has to be at least mildly proficient with earth magic, right?”

The two looked at each other. Neither confirmed it, but neither denied it either. Unless they were both air mages, one of them should at least have the capability to manipulate earth, even if they couldn’t match Genoa or even Juliana.

Really, what she was doing was risky and dangerous. For all Eva knew, they would try to destroy the ritual circle upon seeing it. She was counting on them to be at least somewhat grateful that she had helped out, even if Ylva was the one who was going to be doing all the work.

Even then, by Ylva showing up in their place and threatening or potentially killing everybody, Eva was really doing nothing at all to dissuade them of their belief that Eva could mind control anyone that came near.

Which wasn’t that bad of an idea, now that she thought about it. If sending more people after her wound up with them ‘mind controlled’ then they would stop sending people at all sooner or later. Hopefully. She might be giving the Elysium Order too much credit.

As for Anise and Chris, Eva had definitely learned from Irene. No mentioning the apocalypse or Ragnarök or Armageddon or any other end of the world scenario. In fact, she might be a little stingy on exactly what the ritual circle was supposed to accomplish as well. She wasn’t quite sure what to tell them instead, but she was sure she could come up with something.

Maybe looking through a ritual book might give her some ideas. But were there even other kinds of ritual circles this large?

Eva leaned back, staring up to the sky. Despite the purple streaks still hanging overhead, not many from the other schools seemed to even notice. She certainly hadn’t heard murmurs about it from all the other students wandering the halls these days. Did they all believe the made-up story given by Martina?

Her smile widened as a thought occurred to her.

“Well, we’re already out here. Might as well show you the ritual circle.”

Anise blinked and glanced around. She almost looked like she hadn’t even realized that they had been walking through the Infinite Courtyard.

After leaving Ylva and Nel, Eva had started walking off mostly on her own. It wasn’t her fault the two decided to follow after her with all their questions and concerns.

“What are we doing out here?”

“Not much farther,” Eva said as she walked up a short incline. The top of the ridge led out to the area she had cleared away for the ritual. “Irene, Juliana! I brought help!” she called out.

Only to frown as she looked over the football field sized clearing.

Irene was out in the middle of the clearing with Saija walking alongside her. But no Juliana and no Arachne. No Srey either, but he hadn’t been around near as much since the hunters stopped spying on them.

She looked up at Eva’s call and started walking, only to get swept up by Saija. The small cry of alarm as they flew over was something Eva almost wished she had been able to record, if only to play it back for her own petty amusement.

“Juliana went off to fight Arachne again,” Irene said once she got her feet firmly on the ground. Her eyes flicked over to the two nuns as she leaned in to whisper. “What are they doing here?”

“They are going to help out,” Eva said, turning to the two girls and pointing at the sky. “I assume you’ve seen the purple streaks.”

Chris nodded. “Hard to miss. Some agriculture project, right?”

Eva didn’t answer. She simply smiled. “We’re trying to recreate part of how that came to be,” she eventually said with a wide grin.

<– Back | Index | Next –>


009.014

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“Oh no,” Eva groaned.

At first she had thought it was mere coincidence. People around school, especially those in her age group, often went to the same locations. As such, it shouldn’t be too odd if some people followed her around all day. They visited the same classrooms or simply had class nearby.

However, most people wouldn’t walk around the school after class had ended for the day. Neither would they make three complete circuits without finding their destination. Even if they were from a foreign school.

Eva sighed, coming to a stop in the middle of the hallway. It had been a good two weeks since she had gotten the Elysium trainees to stop following her around. A time that, unfortunately, had been too good to last.

She considered just confronting them in the hallway and finding out what they wanted as soon as possible. The thought never made it past the consideration stage. Other people wandered the hallways even though school was out for the day, visiting clubs or professors. Depending on what they wanted to harass her about, Eva didn’t want the whole school knowing about it.

So, with a sigh, she continued down the hallway until she found an empty classroom. She lingered outside just long enough to make sure the two girls saw her enter.

Arachne wasn’t around this time to give her support. She, Irene, and Juliana were already out at the ritual field. Apparently Juliana wanted to get out there early for a quick sparring session with Arachne. Irene didn’t have much else to do and still didn’t know the way properly even after three days of heading out there, so she had followed the two of them.

Eva had decided to stay behind and see if she couldn’t recruit anyone else to help out. Irene hadn’t been quite the force multiplier that Eva had hoped she would be. Overall, work was proceeding faster. However, she wasn’t quite up to Juliana’s level.

Not to mention Saija’s almost constant distractions.

Though, Juliana offered a number of tips to try to help Irene carve out segments faster. Which made Eva quite happy as she hadn’t even been lying when she said it could count as training for the next event.

Who she might recruit to help out, Eva couldn’t decide. Irene hadn’t reacted all that well to being told the world might be ending. Someone else might react worse. That pretty much limited Eva to people who knew her decently well. Shalise, Jordan, and Shelby… and that was about it. Only one of whom were earth mages. Jordan. And Eva wasn’t so sure about bringing him in on the project given his ties to Dean Anderson.

Anderson might not be too happy with her creating a large ritual circle on school grounds. Especially not during this whole tournament. People might get nervous about Brakket if word got out about it all. So he was out.

Maybe Genoa. She already knew that Void was under attack and such. Of course, she could probably wave a hand and turn the entire field into the proper ritual circle all at once. Her drastic help would be appreciated.

Unless she tried to stop the ritual circle. In that case, she could wave her hand and destroy all the hard work they had put into it thus far. Eva hadn’t brought it up with Juliana yet and she couldn’t guess at how Genoa might react on her own.

But, finding help would have to wait until later.

Eva took a seat on top of a table, crossed her legs and her arms, and waited.

The door burst open an instant later, slamming into the wall, bouncing off the doorstopper, and almost smacking the first angry nun right in her face.

Shoving the door back with slightly less force, she continued into the room as if nothing had happened. Her eyes flared white as she marched up to Eva with her hands clenched into fists at her sides.

Anise followed the first nun inside. Unlike her companion, Anise was almost tiptoeing. After her initial glance at Eva, her eyes drifted down and to one side, avoiding eye contact.

Chris—if Eva remembered the name Anise had given for her companion the other night—was obviously the more agitated of the two and the more dangerous, so she chose to focus on her. The lightning crackling over the nun’s clenched fist had Eva sitting slightly straighter. She was almost wishing that she could freely use blood magic. A shield would be most welcome at the moment.

Blinking out of the way the second the nun moved her hands would have to suffice.

“Alright,” Eva said. “What is it this time?”

“What did you do to her?” Chris asked, voice low and menacing. As menacing as a girl a year older than Eva could get, anyway.

Eva blinked and glanced to Anise…

Who just sighed and shook her head without meeting Eva’s eyes.

“I don’t know what–”

“She,” Chris shouted, thrusting a lightning tipped finger at Anise, “comes in after the event all like, ‘Oh, maybe demons aren’t so bad,’ and ‘Maybe it was all a misunderstanding,’ and ‘I really hate tentacles.'”

“Well, none of that sounds wrong to me. Except, I’ve heard that massages–”

“Of course it is wrong. You’ve poisoned her mind.”

Eva held up a hand, finger in the air. “One point before you continue: I have absolutely no magical abilities that let me alter people’s minds in any way shape or form.”

“And I’m supposed to believe that?” Chris said, thrusting her hands to her hips.

“Well, yeah. Otherwise you wouldn’t be bothering me. I’d make you think I wasn’t here or something. I do have things to do that don’t involve entertaining your outlandish conspiracy theories, after all.”

Chris clenched her teeth. Her arms shook at her side as she struggled with herself.

After a moment of remaining silent, her hands unclenched and she let out a soft sigh. The lightning trails disappeared from her fingertips as the flames in her eyes died down.

“Please,” she said, voice much more subdued. “Please undo whatever you did to her. I’ll do whatever you want, take me instead.”

Eva blinked in confusion. She glanced over to Anise—who was now rolling her eyes—before blinking a second time.

“What?”

“I told you,” Anise said, stepping forwards and placing a hand on Chris’s shoulder. “She didn’t do anything to me. And I don’t think that demons aren’t so bad.”

Chris ran the sleeve of her shirt across her face.

Is she crying? Eva thought, trying to keep her face as blank as possible. She wasn’t sure what to think about that. Maybe if she had actually done something, she would feel slightly guilty. But she hadn’t.

“Right,” Eva said. She blinked straight past the two nuns, reappearing next to the door. “You two clearly have things you need to work out between yourselves, so I’ll just be seeing myself out.”

“She’s facing an inquest!” Chris shouted before Eva could wrap her hand around the handle.

For a moment, Eva considered ignoring her and continuing on her way. She had already been involved with the Elysium Order enough for a lifetime or two. An inquest sounded particularly troublesome. Though, to Eva’s knowledge, the Elysium Order still had yet to remake an inquisitorial chapter. Whoever was doing the inquisitoring was probably a single individual or small group that hadn’t been part of Ylva’s massacre.

She had a feeling that they were still mad about that. That and the theft of their obelisk. If they were just biding their time until they found a good time to strike, it would probably be best to know about it sooner rather than later.

So Eva turned with a mild sigh. Anise still refused to meet her eyes while Chris was glaring with just as much intensity as she had before. Except her eyes had a slight sheen of liquid over them instead of the previous flames.

“And?” Eva said, crossing her arms over her chest. “What does her inquest have to do with me?”

“They–They want to recall her. Both of us, though I’m not under any suspicion. The entire Elysium Order watched the event the other night. They saw her listen to and take orders from you without significant questioning. She never fought back or tried to make an advantage for herself.”

Eva glanced to Anise with a frown. “As much as I appreciated not being stabbed in the back, that’s her fault, not mine.”

“I know.” Chris looked over her shoulder. “Anise is… a nice girl.”

“That doesn’t sound like a compliment coming from you,” Anise mumbled under her breath.

Chris acted as if she hadn’t heard, not even glancing towards her partner. “But the higher-ups saw what they saw.”

“I still don’t see what this has to do with me. Can’t she just go tell them she isn’t being mind-controlled and be done with it all?”

“You don’t understand. We–People–Students are not normally implanted with the Eye of God. You know about them, right?” she said, tapping at her chest just above where her eye was fused into her skin.

Eva shrugged and nodded her head. “Yeah, they’re how I noticed you two were part of the Elysium Order.”

Chris narrowed her eyes but, after a moment of consideration, did not press the matter. “They’re valuable. Extremely valuable. Almost impossible to grow healthy ones and time-consuming to boot. They can make a mundane human capable of casting magic. Several of them can allow someone to see anywhere on the planet with only a few things being able to stop their sight.

“We were given them while still students specifically to watch you,” Chris said, pointing a finger right at Eva. “To observe you and gather data for the Elysium Order as a whole. All so that we could use them to form better tactics and plans.”

Outwardly, Eva kept her feelings hidden. Her face became a plastic mask with no twitching of her lips or even a slight narrowing of her eyes. She kept her arms crossed. Even her lightly tapping finger continued tapping at the same pace.

But she had half a mind to reach forward and tear the eyes from their chests where they stood.

“If we fail,” she said, voice solemn and slow, apparently failing to notice Eva’s inner feelings. “If they decide to revoke the Eye of God, we won’t just lose access to the Elysium Order magic.”

Eva didn’t ask whether that meant their lives or something else. She didn’t quite trust herself to speak without lashing out at their mission just yet.

“However,” she said, “the higher-ups have grown nervous after watching the event. Sisters who have come into contact with you have had a habit of… going rogue,” she said, almost whispering. “Sister Cross, Sister Heiden, Sister Cole, and, of course, Augur Stirling.”

Eva almost opened her mouth to say that she had no idea who two of those were. But one was probably Alicia. The other… maybe one of the nuns who had been stationed at Brakket Academy during her first year.

“The three would be bad enough on their own. Especially given Sister Cole’s theft of several Elysium Order secrets. Sister Stirling is the one who really set them off on the warpath. Once it came to light that she had lost a small portion of her eyes to a necromancer of all things, they only grew more concerned. Yet they cannot move against her so long as she is with that demon.”

Before the trainee nun could go off on too much of a tangent about Nel, Eva interrupted her with a wave of her hand towards Anise.

“Now they’re worried that she’s falling for my irresistible charms?” Technically, Ylva had been the one collecting all the nuns.

“Don’t flatter yourself,” Anise grumbled with a mild glare. She only kept her gaze up for a few moments before sighing and dropping her eyes back to the floor.

Maybe she hadn’t been intentionally avoiding Eva’s gaze. She could just as easily be depressed to the point of despair.

“Still don’t know why she can’t say that she’s not being mind-controlled. Because she isn’t. None of them are. Sister Cross has a kid she’s worried about. And Nel? She’s just paranoid that the Elysium Order is trying to kill her. Which seems fairly reasonable, actually, given what I know about your Order. Alicia… well, she did get her head screwed with. But that wasn’t me. I was mostly dead at the time.”

The two glanced at each other, Chris looking mildly smug at the admission.

“I should be able to do just that,” Anise said. “The question is whether or not they’ll believe me.”

“So what, you need proof or something? Should we go pretend to fight where some cameras can see us?”

“It isn’t that simple,” Chris said. She tapped at her chest again. “It isn’t sapient, but it will definitely be able to tell the difference between serious fighting and a mock spar.”

“Surely your superiors don’t want a school associated with the Elysium Order to be caught actually trying to murder another student, even if it is an enemy. Otherwise you would have killed the vampire by now.”

Eva walked back around the pair as Chris shifted uncomfortably where she stood. So long as she was actually going to stick around for a short time, she might as well relax in a proper chair. It didn’t seem like either of the nuns were going to attack her.

Still, what an annoying situation.

The Elysium Order really needed to learn when to quit. She had thought they learned after Ylva destroyed their inquisitors. Obviously not. They had just been biding their time. Though Eva did admit that she might have kicked their hive when she stole the obelisk.

“So,” Eva said as she sat down and kicked her feet up on the table. “What do you want from me? I’m not mind-controlling her, so don’t ask me to make that better.”

“Don’t worry about it,” Anise said with a shake of her head. “I told Chris. She’s just being unreasonable.” Pinching her fingers around the sleeve of Chris’ shirt, Anise turned towards the door. “This is my problem.”

Chris slapped Anise’s hand away as she faced her. “They’re going to excommunicate you.”

“You don’t know that.”

“They don’t want another traitor to go turncoat in the middle of a mission. They won’t take the chance.”

“You don’t know–”

Anise stumbled backwards, hand pressed to her cheek.

Chris nursed the palm of her hand as she glared up at Anise.

You need to take this more seriously.”

“You think I’m not?” Anise shouted, voice hard. “You think I want to go before the inquisitors? You think I want to get this eye torn out of my chest? They aren’t going to be nice about it. They weren’t nice putting it in. Hell, I’ll be lucky if they don’t kill me.”

Eva, who had been sitting still and silent while they had their little fight, blinked. “Seriously? Kill you? For not attacking me during a friendly event between schools? I wasn’t even the one to suggest the truce among our group. That was Emily.”

Chris looked back with a start, almost like she had forgotten Eva was in the room. After a short stare, she shook her head. “The Elysium Order is very black and white. An ‘if you’re not with us, you’re against us’ mindset.”

Eva opened her mouth to argue, but a little consideration had her stopping and snapping her mouth shut. Nel had been convinced that the Elysium Order was out to kill her. Or at least Lynn Cross. Then the inquisitors had attacked the prison and made an attempt to get to her while in the hands of Sawyer. Nothing had happened since, but Ylva had effectively taunted the entire Order.

Of course, Nel was an augur. She was somewhat special.

But then, Lynn Cross had probably not been hiding halfway around the world in the middle of nowhere because she had been worried that Eva would be coming after her. And, by her own admission, the Elysium Order had locked her up before she managed to escape.

So really, Eva had no argument against them trying to kill Anise, though she felt locking her up would be more likely though still extreme.

“You know what?” Eva said after a moment. “I’ve got someone you might like to speak with.”

— — —

Nel walked alongside Ylva, each step slow and somber. She tried to keep her eyes straight ahead. It wasn’t easy. Everywhere she looked, something strange waited in the shadows. Things that she couldn’t quite name, but were there, watching her. It had been that way ever since Ylva tapped her on her forehead.

Ever since Alicia’s death.

To her left, an elderly man sat patiently on a bench. A faint ghost of a smile lingered on his face as he watched the people around him.

The people around him were far less serene. Paramedics ran around his body, sprawled out before the park bench. One placed a clear mask over his mouth and began squeezing down on a flimsy plastic tube attached to the mask. Two more helped him up on a stretcher while a third attached medical electrodes to his chest.

Yet the elderly man continued to watch with his peaceful smile.

To his side, a short girl only ten or eleven years old with brilliant gold hair watched with him, absolutely undisturbed by the body lying at their feet. She turned to him and opened her mouth. Soundless words passed over her lips.

“The reaper is offering a choice,” Ylva said, coming to a stop a short distance away. “His time is not yet up. He may choose to return to his body or he may pass on his remaining time to a close relative. His wife or children. Even grandchildren.”

Despite Ylva wearing her sheer dress and Nel having strange robes on, nobody glanced in their direction. People who happened to look in their direction failed to notice. Their eyes merely slid off the two to look at whatever they wanted to see. Which was probably a good thing if they wanted to avoid people panicking. It was broad daylight out. As such, Ylva wasn’t just a giant woman. She was a skeleton.

Only the young girl managed to see the two of them. She gave a light nod of her head towards Ylva as she spoke to the elderly man.

“A choice very few receive.”

“Theoretically,” Nel said, “couldn’t someone achieve very long lives if others, maybe relatives or friends, figured out what happens with near death experiences and the offer made? They could decide to pass before their times and offer the rest of their lives all to one person. I mean, they would be sacrificing their lives, but I imagine some people out there would be willing to do so for others.”

“A choice very few receive,” Ylva said again, though she had a slight smile on her face as she glanced towards Nel. “There are systems in place to prevent abuse. And, should he return to his body, he will remember nothing of his choice or near death aside from a few faint delusions.”

“I see,” Nel said, voice soft.

They continued watching for another few minutes. As his body got placed on a stretcher and loaded up in the ambulance, the little girl—the reaper—moved over to sit on the bench to his side. His faint smile slowly faded as she spoke a few more words.

“What is he unhappy about?”

“His body causes him near-constant pain. At the moment, he is feeling none of it. However, he makes a great deal of money for his family, giving his children and his wife comfortable lives. At the same time, he won’t always be making money. At some point in the future, his life may become a burden on his descendants.”

Ylva turned her body fully to face Nel.

“Being asked to make such a choice is not easy for most mortals. Even now, essentially dead, he does not truly comprehend what lies beyond life. Compounding the problem, he does not have long to make the choice. The reaper has given him an ultimatum. He must choose before his body reaches the hospital.”

Nel let out a small breath.

When she had asked about reapers and valkyrie, she had thought that she would be training. Learning to magically fight at a higher level or otherwise increasing her magical abilities.

Ylva had nothing of the sort in mind.

Instead, they had gone on field trips. Every few days, Ylva would announce that they were off someplace. She never gave any warning. The time of day varied. They had gone in the middle of the night and they had gone at noon. Ylva never cared if Nel was sleeping or eating or bathing.

And Nel hadn’t complained once.

A beep from her pocket broke Nel out of her reverie. Her brand new cellphone—one Zoe had gifted her—had a new message.

“It’s Eva,” Nel said after reading through the contents. “Not an emergency, but she has people who want to talk to me.”

The phone beeped again.

“Us,” she corrected.

“Very well,” Ylva said. “We have seen enough. Tell her that We will meet with her.”

Nel nodded and sent back a message. Less than ten seconds later, her phone beeped again.

“She’s currently at the school but can meet us anywhere.”

“The school will suffice.”

After sending the message, Nel looked up. The old man had yet to make his decision. Or perhaps he had made it and was just enjoying a pain-free existence for the moment, unfettered by his body or what lay beyond. She thought to ask Ylva if they might stay long enough to hear his response.

But reconsidered.

His choice was obviously not the reason they had come out here.

<– Back | Index | Next –>


009.013

<– Back | Index | Next –>

“Construction?” Neuro asked with a frown, toying with of the golden triangles that adorned the tips of the demon’s long hair.

“Yep. Building a house maybe,” Eva said with a shrug. She couldn’t really think up anything else it might be.

Saija’s eyes narrowed to thin slits, glancing off to one side to avoid looking at anyone. Her lips curled back into a teeth-clenched grimace.

“Building?” She nudged Irene in the side. “I told you we should have done that last event. How am I supposed to build things?”

That was a good point. Something the other two demons apparently agreed with, judging by the nods of their heads. Really, even regular mages might find themselves not particularly useful. A fire mage wouldn’t have much to do in a house building contest. Unless they acted like a kiln to harden an earth mage’s structure. Really, it was air mages who wouldn’t have much to contribute.

Maybe not building houses then, but something else that still needed construction.

“For all I know, Redford is going to drop you off in the amazon jungle and tell you to survive for a week, build some shelters and hunt or scavenge for food.”

That would certainly be more exciting for viewers than some house building. Though long. Unless they streamed it on-line and let viewers tune into it whenever. Eva didn’t know how that would work with the television station, but maybe they would show a few hours a night. Or highlights from the day.

Henry crossed his arms as he glared at Eva with narrowed eyes. “And where did you get this information? We didn’t win, in case you forgot. Or did you forget which school we belong to again.”

Crossing her arms in front of her chest, Eva returned his glare. “Believe me or not. I don’t care.”

She considered taunting him for running off and having a temper tantrum when Arachne disagreed with him about the gorgon, but doing so would probably have him running off again. As she wasn’t participating in this event, she should probably leave the remainder of the team fully intact.

Though a small part of her mind couldn’t help but wonder if she could talk Anderson into swapping him out for someone else.

Juliana would be nice to have. She hadn’t signed up because of her parents, but they might have changed their minds after having seen—or participated in, in Genoa’s case—the first event. Anderson and Redford were obviously taking pains to make the tournament safe.

Given the cameras centered on the event, there were probably even more safety features behind the scenes. Redford would want to make good impressions on mundanes while Anderson wouldn’t want to frighten away prospective new students. Someone winding up mangled or dead would dissuade most normal people.

“Plan for what you want,” Eva said after a moment of silence. “I told you what I heard. Since I’m not allowed to participate, you can deal with it as you want.”

Henry took his eyes off Eva and looked over the rest of the students with a far less hostile glare. At least, far less hostile when he wasn’t looking at a demon or a human associated with demons.

Which was basically just Rachael.

Still, he reserved the majority of his ire for Eva.

And she couldn’t figure out why. Maybe he was friends with the Burnsides. Or simply had a bad experience in the past.

“There’s two weeks before the event,” he said, getting to his feet. “See if you can find something out for yourselves.”

With one last glance around the room, he snapped his notebook shut. Henry moved out of the room before anyone else could even stand. He barely managed to keep from shoulder-checking Eva on his way past.

Though only two days had passed since the night of the first event, Henry had grown far more hostile. During the feast, he had alternated between glaring at her and avoiding eye contact entirely. She could understand him being upset that Brakket Academy had lost, but he was apparently the only one.

At least, the only one of the competitors. A few regular students had alternated between blaming her or Randal.

More so Randal. His dormitory door had been vandalized with several scathing messages about his heritage and bound demon alike. Something about how a demonic elf should have been faster.

As if they would have done better.

The vandalism only contributed to his now obvious depression.

Even now, Randal sat with his head resting on his knuckles, staring at the ground. He hadn’t spoken once during the entire meeting.

Eva wasn’t sure what to say to him beyond her words at the feast the night before. But he didn’t have to participate in the next event, so he should be able to take some time to himself to get sorted out.

As for the next event, the vampire had so far not come up to Eva to beg for blood or to renegotiate their deal. As such, she was torn between whether she wanted Brakket to win or to lose. Losing could take some heat off Randal. Depending on how and why they lost, it might knock Henry down a peg as well.

On the reverse side of things, winning was generally better. Not to mention the potential amusement if the demon-majority team had lost the predominantly destructive event only to turn around and win the constructive one. The only two humans who could participate and didn’t have bound demons were Henry and Irene, and Irene was heavily associated with Saija.

Of course, like Saija had said, demons really weren’t great at building things. She was a succubus. Her talents lay in manipulative magic, though her raw strength could come in handy.

The other two demons, Sebastian and Neuro, Eva didn’t know half as much about. Sebastian sat in his chair, stirring a cup of tea he had procured from somewhere with an ornate silver spoon held in his gloved hand. He had a faint smile on his face as he stared off towards Henry’s vacant seat.

Neuro’s eyes swirled in thought. Literally. They were a brilliant green rather than the usual demonic red. He was supposedly smart, but Eva hadn’t been in a position to confirm it thus far. Maybe he would come up with something.

Unless he was thinking about something entirely unrelated to the tournament. That was a decent possibility as well.

Meeting apparently adjourned, Eva turned and started away from the small conference room that they had been using for tournament related business. She wasn’t the only one. Rachael had been out the door almost as fast as Henry.

However, she stopped as she reached the door. A completely impulsive thought took hold. A somewhat dangerous thought as well.

“Irene,” Eva said, “might I have a moment of your time before you run off to wherever?”

She sat up straight, offering a slow nod of her head. “Did you need something?”

“Just a little training exercise I thought you might be interested in trying.”

“Training?” she asked with a frown. “For fighting?”

Eva shook her head. “You’re an earth mage and I’ve got a project I’m working on that needs an earth mage.”

“Juliana isn’t helping you?”

“She is, but maybe it will help train you for this event. It isn’t a problem if you don’t want to do it.”

Irene’s frown deepened. She crossed her arms, staring at Eva as Eva moved to the side to let another student out of the room.

Saija stood up, strutted over to Eva, and walked around her in a short circle. She hummed to herself as she looked Eva up and down. When she stopped circling, she was a bit close for comfort.

Eva glared at her the whole time. It wasn’t that she disliked Saija, but the succubus was a bit much sometimes. Eva didn’t know what kind of relationship Irene and Saija had in private. Ever since the demon hunters had attacked, the two had been nearly inseparable. Really, she didn’t care what they did.

So long as she was left out of it.

And, at the moment, she really didn’t need Saija’s face quite so close to hers.

“What are you plan–”

Eva snapped her hand up to Saija’s chin, clamping her mouth shut. “Saija. You can ask your questions from a respectable distance. If you want to go with us, just ask.”

Releasing her with a slight shove, Saija sulked back to Irene and desperately tried to look like she wasn’t hiding behind the human.

Really, it had been months since they started going to school. Yet she was still thinking that Eva would bite her head off at the slightest provocation? Sure, she had just grabbed her jaw. But she hadn’t hurt Saija.

Thinking more, if they likened her to Zagan, maybe it wasn’t such an outlandish thing to do. Even knowing that Zagan wasn’t going to permanently hurt her, Eva still wouldn’t want to be on his bad side.

“Go with you?” Irene said, still frowning.

“Yep! I’ll show you,” Eva said, starting towards the door.

She paused as a thought occurred to her. As sensitive as she was to cold, Eva had barely felt anything the other night during the event. The entire ward had to have been heated. Just because it hadn’t snowed yet didn’t mean that it wasn’t cold. Eva solved the problem through heating spells, but not everybody was a fire mage.

“Ah. You might want to bring a warm coat,” Eva said with a smile.

“Alright, we’re out here without anyone else,” Irene said as she nearly tripped over a stray branch despite the light spell Eva had thrown out for her benefit. Saija caught her, keeping her from falling to the ground. “You avoided mentioning exactly what you need help with. I assume it was because other people were around.”

Eva turned with a smile, walking backwards through the rough brush. “Thanks for having the tact to not ask about anything.”

“Well I’m asking now.”

“We’re almost there.”

Irene stopped moving. “Eva,” she said. “You’re dragging us out here in the middle of the night and being awfully creepy about it. I don’t want to get involved in anything big again. I’ve had enough as it is.”

Eva sighed, stopping as well. Rather than answer right away, she craned her head back to stare at the sky.

“The night you fought the monsters that came out of my dorm room, those purple streaks appeared in the sky.”

Looking up to the sky as well, Irene let out a soft groan. “I knew it. This is something big.”

“They’re a connection between the mortal realm, Void, and Life itself. Two Powers and a battlefield.”

“Right. Way too big,” Irene said, backing up. “Eva, I’m–”

“Involved no matter what you do. Life is trying to pull Void into the mortal realm. Most likely in an attempt to make Void vulnerable. Unfortunately, Void will be bringing along all of Hell. Maybe Hell will take the shape of another planet or galaxy, or maybe it will catastrophically merge with the mortal realm, or simply unleash all the demons of Hell onto Earth. I don’t know.

“One thing is certain, it probably isn’t going to be good for us. Especially because Life’s reason for attacking Void seems to be because Death and Void are allied. Death might be the next target. Something, believe it or not, that would not be good for anyone.”

Eva took her eyes off the sky, looking Irene in the eyes. “So we’re going to bring Void over without the rest of Hell ahead of whenever Life wanted to do it in the hopes that Void will be able to seal away Life. Or at least remove the mortal realm from the playing field,” Eva said with a smile.

Irene didn’t say anything.

Neither did Saija.

After waiting a full minute, neither had so much as moved. Eva felt her smile start to slip. If Irene got scared and went around telling people, things could go poorly. She didn’t want to kill Irene, so maybe Serena could perform a little memory trick to make her forget.

Except Serena wasn’t in on the ritual’s secret either.

Eva bit her lip before smiling again. “So how is that for a sales pitch?” she asked, trying for a small bit of humor.

“Terrible,” Irene said, voice flat. “But you’re serious, aren’t you.”

“Unfortunately.”

Irene’s hands shot to her hair where she started tugging. “Why me?” she moaned.

“Well, because you’re an earth mage and Juliana–”

“I just wanted to come to school, learn some magic, work on my studies, and other normal things. I wanted to become an enchantress, maybe own a shop. I’m not a mage-knight or some thrill-seeker. And now the world is ending?”

“Apocalypse has been used to describe the situation by some of the people who know, yes,” Eva said with a reluctant nod of her head. “But we’re trying to avoid–”

Irene sank down to her knees, getting her pants covered in dirt, and cupped her hands to her face. She wasn’t crying… but she obviously wasn’t taking the information half as well as Juliana had. Of course, Juliana already knew half of it. The only thing she hadn’t known was Arachne’s mission to bring Void over to Earth without Life’s involvement.

At her side, Saija fluttered a pair of wings that hadn’t been out a mere ten minutes ago. She hovered over Irene, bobbing from one shoulder to the other without quite knowing how to help her troubled friend. Only when she placed a hand on Irene’s shoulder did Irene finally move.

She glanced out of her cupped hands, looking at Saija with a half-hearted glare. “Did you know about all this?”

Her head whipped back and forth in a definite negative. “Sounds neat though. I’ve never seen Void. Do you think Powers are cute–”

“I used to think I was the only sane person who went to Brakket,” Irene said, face back buried in her hands. The low volume of her voice combined with her hands forced Eva to take a step closer to properly hear her. “I was right,” she said with a groan.

Irene popped up, brows furrowed. She stuck a finger in Eva’s chest. “You can’t just say that we’re on the verge of apocalypse all nonchalant-like.”

“Ah huh.”

“‘Ah huh,’ she says.” Irene turned to glare at Saija. “‘Do you think a Power is cute,’ she says. Do neither of you have any sense of gravity?”

“Of course I do,” Saija said with a disarming smile. She spread her wings ever so slightly. “Every time I fly, gravity is there to drag me back down to Earth should I lapse in my gliding.”

Irene stared, gaze deader than Ylva’s. Without even a sigh or a simple shake of her head, she turned and started off in the direction they had been coming from.

Saija gave a questioning glance towards Eva.

Eva had her own frown leveled at the succubus.

Saija let out a little noise from the back of her throat before moving straight to Irene’s side.

“Did I say something wrong?”

“No. Not really,” Irene said without inflection. “I just need to go have a mental breakdown. Don’t worry about me.”

Eva blinked in front of her, hands up to stop her from going forwards. “I don’t suppose I can convince you to have your breakdown later? There are still a few things to go over. Like who it is safe to talk about this with. Also I’m sure Juliana would–”

“Safe to talk about it with?”

“Well, we don’t want to cause a panic now do we?”

“So you do have a sense of how big this is,” Irene said, hands on her hips.

Eva just smiled, ignoring the panic on Irene’s face. “Come on,” she said. “Juliana should be waiting for us. She’ll probably be mad at me for being so late again, but oh well.”

— — —

Zoe paused as her companion stopped to sniff the air. A vampire’s sense of smell wasn’t good for much aside from the scent of blood. A fact that had Zoe instantly on edge.

“Something wrong?” she asked, hand closing around the hilt of her dagger.

“I don’t think so,” Serena said. “Just a familiar scent heading off towards the forest again.”

“Eva?”

“Yep. Along with a demon who isn’t Arachne and someone else.”

Zoe let her arm drop to her side with a small sigh. Eva and demon likely meant it was nothing to be worried about. Especially because Serena had smelled Eva off in the forests on occasion ever since she arrived. They were probably just training for the next event.

Still, she couldn’t help but ask. “Who is the someone else?”

Serena shrugged her shoulders. “Don’t know. A human. I haven’t really interacted with anyone aside from you and Wayne, so everyone else sort of muddles together. No real distinct scent.”

“Could you find them again if they were in front of you?”

“Probably. Why?”

“Just curious,” Zoe said, continuing off towards Wayne’s classroom.

“If you’re really curious, I’m sure you could just ask Eva,” Serena said, skipping up and around Zoe until she was walking backwards down the hall. “Last time I asked, she told me that she was working on a weather ward. Something to keep rain and snow out. I wonder if she’s still working on that.”

“Weather ward,” Zoe repeated with a frown. Maybe something to erect around her women’s ward. She had confessed a certain distaste for snow in the past. Or it could be homework for Chelsea’s class.

Either way, it didn’t sound like anything to worry about.

Zoe knocked on Wayne’s door, waiting just long enough before opening it for Wayne to grunt out an answer.

“Come in,” he said. He didn’t even look up as the door opened. A boiling pot of orange liquid bubbled underneath a stooped over Wayne. His eyes never left the pot even as he gathered up a fistful of powder and sprinkled it in the liquid.

The orange liquid turned almost completely clear. Enough for Zoe to see the cast iron insides of the cauldron.

Which was something that struck Zoe as odd. Not the potion. Finding Wayne tinkering with potions wasn’t strange in the slightest. The fact that he was using a cauldron over an open flame was the real oddity. Modern potionwork almost exclusively used modern tools. Flasks and burners that could be found inside mundane chemical laboratories.

“Do you ever wonder why a potion designed to shrink things doesn’t shrink what it’s made in? Or the flask it is stored in, for that matter.”

“Potions are more your specialty than mine, but I would assume that it is because potion making equipment is enchanted to resist magic.”

“That is more of a safety precaution than anything else,” Wayne said, tapping the edge of the cast iron cauldron. “This thing isn’t enchanted in the slightest. No growth, no shrinkage.”

Zoe stepped closer to the pot, looking it over with sharpened senses. “Perhaps the potion making itself imparts some protection while it is being made and shortly after, keeping it from acting until poured onto something unprotected. Have you tried it in regular glassware?”

“Not yet.”

“What brought on this line of thinking?”

“Watching the first event, actually.”

“Eva’s basilisk golem?”

He gave a slight murmur of agreement as he dropped a crystallized essence of water into the potion. The clear liquid expanded instantly, going from half-filling the cauldron to an inch short of the lip.

Zoe actually took a step away. If that was some shrinking solution, she did not want it spilling onto her.

“Growth and shrinking potions are not very useful,” Wayne said, almost more to himself than anyone else in the room. “You can’t shrink a suitcase as the clothes inside don’t shrink. You can’t embiggen a cube of wood and carve out a house because the wood will revert after a time when the magic runs out. As such, I haven’t worked with them often. Seeing that basilisk grow just sparked my curiosity.”

“There are other potions that should affect the flasks,” Zoe said slowly. “Essence of Luminosity, for instance. It doesn’t usually make the glass glow afterwards.”

“Never really thought about it before. Or had assumed it was because of the enchantments. But watching some of Spencer’s potion spill onto the ground got me curious.”

He took a pinch of leaves and dropped them into the pot, turning the clear liquid to a milky white. Only then did he finally take his eyes off the potion.

“Ah, Serena. You’re here too.”

“You didn’t notice?” the vampire gasped, clutching at her chest like she had been shot before collapsing into one of the empty classroom seats.

Wayne didn’t so much as blink an eye, instead turning to face Zoe.

“I assume you’re here about Anderson’s request?”

Zoe nodded. “I haven’t mentioned it to Ylva yet–”

“Good. Don’t. As…” he trailed off, curling his lip into a nasty smile. “Nice as she seems to be, having her anywhere near children seems to be the worst possible idea that man could have come up with.”

“You were at the hospital at the time, but she has been around the students before. She disguised herself as a little girl.”

“I don’t believe that.”

Zoe just shrugged as she leaned against one of the tables in the room. “It’s true.”

“Well I’m against it,” Serena said. “And I doubt the other vampire would like having a minion of Death running around, trying to rekill us both.”

“I’m actually more worried for the Isomer students. Ylva has not been kind to the Elysium Order.” Zoe shook her head with a sigh. “Unfortunately, I think Anderson intends to speak with her regardless of my choice in the matter.”

“When you suggested he bring on security guards, I had been hoping he would not go the route of Turner. Let’s just find some nice retired mage-knights and throw them in front of him before he wanders around to all the demons in the area and begs for their help.”

<– Back | Index | Next –>


009.012

<– Back | Index | Next –>

Eva flopped over on her bed.

“Ah, I’m tired,” she mumbled to nobody in particular.

Nobody else was around. Juliana and Shalise had gone over to Genoa’s house to watch the event. Irene, Jordan, and Shelby were all there as well, along with Saija, Srey, and Vektul. A gathering that might have had Eva worried for their safety from demon hunters had she not been so tired. Especially because she was relatively certain that Genoa had participated in the event as an antagonist to one of the groups.

Carlos was supposedly a decent fighter, if Genoa was to be believed. They had three demons, Jordan, and Juliana as well. If anything had come up, they could probably handle it all on their own.

All in all, the event could have gone much worse. Even aside from how it ended. She had honestly been worried that another sky-cracking laser beam would obliterate half of the contestants. Given the vampire’s presence, the Elysium Order might have attacked all on their own. That combined with Eva and Lucy’s presence, it had been an ideal time to attack for just about anyone.

Well, partially. There were a lot of high-profile mages running about Brakket Academy at the moment. Redford, for one. And the event had been televised. A demon hunter might not care, but the Elysium Order did have something of a reputation to uphold.

Her school hadn’t won, but neither had the vampire’s. As it was, he was probably going to corner her sometime and try to bet on something else. Perhaps his school winning the second event or something similar.

Eva didn’t really care. She couldn’t participate in it. That gave her all kinds of free time. With Juliana’s help, they might be able to finish up the ritual circle before she actually had to worry about it being discovered.

Maybe. It was still a daunting task. They weren’t going to do anything tonight, obviously. Maybe not the day after either, as there was supposed to be another feast celebrating the end of the first event and its victors.

Then, she didn’t know when the second event would take place. It might be the following weekend, it might be in the middle of December. Hopefully the latter.

Even once the ritual circle was finished, she would still need to actually find the people to help participate. The demon side of things should be easy enough. She already had half of them helping out either with the creation of the circle or the security of it. A few more could probably be convinced just by saying that they were summoning Void.

The humans weren’t going to be half as easy to find. Juliana would. She was already involved anyway. Shalise as well, probably. Maybe. Maybe leaving her out of it would be for the best. Her mother wouldn’t approve, to say the least.

Though, Genoa probably wouldn’t either. But it was a bit too late in Juliana’s case.

Maybe Irene would come. If she brought Shelby along with her, that would be good. Beyond that, Eva was somewhat at a loss. Vektul had said humans. Eva wasn’t sure that people with demons bound to them counted as human enough, so that ruled out a good number of people who Eva thought might otherwise not have a problem summoning a Power to Earth.

A tapping at the window of her dorm room interrupted Eva’s thoughts.

And yet, being flopped over face down on her bed was nice and comfortable. Did she really want to get up and open the window?

No, not really.

Three more taps rattled the glass before Eva finally lifted her head enough to see who dared to disturb her slumber.

Ah, but the blinds are in the way, Eva thought as she dropped her face back onto the bed.

She wasn’t that tired. Sure, she had used a lot of magic. Especially blinking and fireballs. But that wasn’t too taxing. Maybe she was tired from all the running and jumping around. There had been a lot of that as well.

Or maybe it was the interactions with other people. Other people were always exhausting. Especially ones she had never met before. And nuns.

Eva tilted her head up with a deep frown on her face as the tapping on the window grew louder. Something about that didn’t feel right. She had never had much trouble interacting with people. Other people often had trouble interacting with her unless she dragged them along at her pace, but not the other way around.

If it wasn’t that…

I’m not depressed, am I?

That would be silly. She had accomplished her objective in preventing the vampire from winning. There was nothing to be depressed about.

The tapping rattled the windows enough that it threatened to break the glass.

Eva finally rolled out of bed, stumbling to her feet as she moved over to the window.

“Alright already,” she mumbled.

Pulling up the blinds, she threw the latch and hefted the window up.

A massive spider skittered into the room, barely making it before Eva slammed the window shut again.

“The door works perfectly fine, you know.”

The spider didn’t respond. She couldn’t as she didn’t have a mouth. Not yet, anyway. Her body was expanding back into its humanoid form.

Instead of waiting and watching her, Eva just flopped back down on her bed and buried her face into her pillow.

“Someone’s in a bad mood.”

“Yeah, can’t wait to see that vampire’s face,” Eva mumbled.

Arachne stood still for a moment longer, standing over the side of the bed. When she finally decided to move, she just sat on the edge.

Eva let out a little squawk as Arachne fell backwards, laying her head and the stiff tendrils that passed for her hair on Eva’s back. They poked into her for a minute or two before Arachne finally made herself comfortable in resting against Eva.

All the while, Eva just lay there, not minding the sudden contact. Neither spoke, choosing instead to sit in a companionable silence.

“Thanks,” Eva said, absolutely ruining the mood yet still feeling a need to say so. She tried to move as little as possible so as to keep from disturbing the resting spider, though she did lift her head up enough that she wasn’t speaking into her pillow.

“For what? I didn’t do anything.”

“Knowing you were out there following me, ready to jump in at the first sign of anything truly dangerous was enough. I might have been a whole lot more paranoid had you not been there.”

“I wasn’t able to get into the pyramid itself without possibly being spotted on the cameras.”

“Yeah, I figured. But I also figured that not many others would be able to get inside without being seen. I was a lot more worried about demon hunters and the like, not any of the other contestants.”

Arachne didn’t say anything in response. She really didn’t need to.

Having her there was enough for Eva.

Eva dropped her head back into her pillow and shut her eyes.

— — —

“Remember, join in next time for more magical excitement at Brakket Academy.”

Zoe managed to maintain her smile until the little red recording light blinked off. As soon as it did, she couldn’t help herself. A suppressed yawn finally broke free, stretching her jaw as far as it would go for a few seconds.

“Ah, excuse me,” she said as the yawn died off. “Wasn’t expecting that to go quite so long.”

When the schedule had called for her to comment on several highlights after the event had finished, she had expected a half hour of discussion. There had been no final time listed, but three hours seemed a tad excessive. It had gotten to the point where she had been running out of unique things to say for every little display of magic.

Normally, she would have assumed there to be a time limit simply because the station had other programs they needed to get to. They had obviously cleared their schedule. In fact, Zoe wouldn’t be surprised if the station switched to a few analysts—probably unqualified and mundane analysts—who would discuss and replay the event all through the night. Perhaps even into the next week.

There would be backlash, excitement, fear, uproar, wonder, and all manner of people coming out of the woodworks to either praise or condemn everything magical. Mundane people who couldn’t stand the idea that magic existed had been protesting for years and nothing had really come of it. Of course, there had never been such open and obvious proof. Just whispers and conspiracy theories.

But worrying about such things was, quite frankly, not Zoe’s job. She knew that both Wallace and Anderson had public relations people at the ready. Anderson, possibly Wallace as well, had been planning something like this for a while.

The only thing Zoe was truly concerned about at the moment was protesters showing up around Brakket.

Or worse, rioters.

And demon hunters, though enough had died in the area recently to hopefully ward off any more from showing up. Vampire hunters not associated with the Elysium Order might appear, but they were so few and far between that Zoe couldn’t bring herself to be too concerned. Most people who didn’t like vampires joined up with the Elysium Order.

Zoe would be speaking with Anderson in the morning about hiring some new security guards around the place anyway.

“Don’t worry,” Hank said, standing up to stretch his back. “I was thinking we would only spend an hour talking about it. But the viewers just weren’t dropping off, so…” he trailed off with a shrug.

“Well, I hope everyone enjoyed the event.”

“I’m sure they did. Social media is already going nuts over it all. Sorry about your school though.”

“We may not have won, but I think we made a decent showing of it all.” Zoe stood, resisted the urge to mimic Hank’s stretching, and held out her hand. “Thanks for keeping me on track. I have a tendency to go off on tangents on occasion.”

“Not a problem. I look forward to co-commenting on the next event.” He reached out and took hold of Zoe’s hand. He paused for a moment. “I wonder if it might be possible to sit in on a class or two before the next event. With everything going on, I was feeling a bit overwhelmed.”

“That… could be possible. I’ll have to speak with Anderson, but I don’t foresee much of an issue.” Especially if I frame it in such a way that it sounds like Brakket gets something out of it. “I’ll mention it to him in the morning.”

“Excellent.”

“I don’t know how much it will help. These students study for years before performing magic like this.”

“True. Better than nothing, I suppose.”

Zoe couldn’t really disagree with that. She just nodded her head instead. “I’ll send you a date and time as soon as I speak with Anderson. However, if you’ll excuse me for now, there are a few people I should meet with before the night officially ends.”

“Of course. I look forward to working with you in the future.”

Turning, Zoe stepped off the wooden platform and started walking towards the main school building. Four steps later, she had a better idea. Zoe reached into her pocket and took hold of her wand. A slight buildup of magic had her sent through the blinding white of Between, teleported across the city.

She immediately collapsed into Wayne’s couch.

And started groaning.

The television was on. Worse, she was on. Some station was playing a clip from earlier in the evening.

“Is that what I looked like?”

“What’s wrong? You look fine.”

Zoe narrowed her eyes at Wayne.

He just raised his eyebrows as he took a sip from a cup of coffee.

“The station wanted to do my makeup, something about certain colors standing out better on camera.”

Wayne set his coffee down on the table before leaning back in his armchair. He tilted his head back, facing the ceiling of his home as he closed his eyes. “They did a good job, not that I know anything about makeup,” he grumbled.

“I feel like I could dig my finger three inches into my face before I actually touched skin.” She sighed. The sigh trailed off into a self-depreciating laugh. “So how was it? Terrible?”

“Not as bad as I expected.”

“Knowing you, you expected the world to end halfway through. ‘Not as bad’ could still be a complete disaster.”

“The slow motion shots were nice.”

“They were,” Zoe said. “I wonder if we could get the original footage from them. It might come in handy for class.”

Wayne let out a loud scoff that had Zoe narrowing her eyes again.

“Everyone in the world is going to be jumping at the opportunity to get magic on camera. I’m sure you could find someone willing to set their slow motion cameras up while you cast spells at them for hours on end. They would probably pay you as well.”

“Maybe. But I think I would still like the footage from tonight. The original footage, not just what they’re going to show on repeat for the next several weeks.”

“Well, I doubt they’ll be deleting any of it. I’m sure the military is going to pay good money to get their hands on a copy. Probably several militaries.”

“That’s something other people can deal with,” Zoe said, reaffirming her decision to stay out of larger politicking matters. She was a magical theory professor. If there was a danger to her students, she would jump in to defend them without hesitation.

That the United States armed services might want copies of the footage was not an immediate danger to her students. Or, probably, a long-term danger. Though it wouldn’t surprise her if they came up with a magical branch of the military. Or perhaps just wrapped up certain mages into the Army or Navy or wherever they fit best.

More career paths were always a good thing. Fighting in the military wouldn’t be significantly different from most Guild work. It might even be safer. They would have a team, support, and presumably tactical training. Most mage-knights worked alone or in small groups.

Swinging her legs off the edge of the couch, Zoe started off towards the bathroom. “I’m using your shower.”

— — —

Why can’t Brakket just serve pizza. Everyone likes pizza.

Knowing Brakket Academy, their pizza wouldn’t be any more edible than anything else they served. They would put toppings on it that Eva had never heard of. Probably anchovies as well.

It was enough to make Eva shudder from the thought alone.

In front of her, she didn’t have any fish topped pizza. Close, but not quite.

Eva nudged the… squid with the tip of her finger.

The squid nudged back.

Eva carefully slid the bowl a few inches away from her. She didn’t even know where to begin eating the thing. She could presumably just pick it up and bite down. It wasn’t alive, missing its brain, though that didn’t stop it from squirming.

None of the rest of the dish looked all that edible either. The squid sat atop a mountain of vegetables and little red balls that were probably fish eggs. Of course, they could be Lucy eggs for all Eva knew.

Caviar was supposedly some high-class food. The rest probably was as well. Eva just couldn’t see herself enjoying any of it.

She reached for a bread roll. That seemed the safe choice by far. Her teeth glided straight through the soft dough without encountering anything unexpected.

Though she didn’t have too much of a problem with the food served by Brakket Academy normally, Juliana had also pushed her bowl towards the center of the table. Shalise hadn’t. She happily chewed on the end of a squid tentacle.

Looking across the room, Eva noticed Anise looking especially queasy as she stared at the squid. Her fellow nun had no concerns about the meal. She gnawed on the end of a tentacle as she alternated a glare between the vampire and Eva.

Eva put on a polite smile and gave a slight wave of her hand when their eyes met.

The nun held her scowl in place for just a moment before turning it on Anise. She didn’t say anything. She just stared.

Though her gnawing on the tentacle became a little more violent as she gnashed her teeth.

“Welcome back,” Anderson said, moving to the center of the stage where the professors were eating. “I’ll spare you all a large speech and move straight to the judging. Wallace, if you would be so kind?”

Redford whispered something into the ear of the woman he had been sitting with. The same woman who had been sitting with him at the previous feast. Just as before, her eyes were closed. She didn’t respond, simply smiling, though she did tap the side of her mouth with a finger.

He stood, wiping some sauce from the corners of his mouth with a small napkin. He moved around the table. Every other step, his cane clicked against the floor. Once at the front, he stopped and stared out over the assembled students.

“Fifth place,” he said without preamble or prelude, “goes to Faultline School for the Magically Adept. Though all three students made it to the pyramid, none reached the final chamber.”

Looking over to the mentioned school, Eva found every single student sitting with clenched fists and grit teeth. Even up on stage, their headmaster—or principal, or dean, or whatever he called himself—had his brow furrowed and lips pressed into a deep frown.

“Isomer Holy Academy comes in fourth place. Two members of Isomer failed to reach the pyramid. One made it inside, however, granting them a place over Faultline.”

Eva didn’t bother looking at them. The nun not named Anise now had her fist clenched hard enough to dig her nails into her skin.

And she was staring right at Eva.

Instead, Eva licked her lips. She hadn’t been aware that there would be rankings beyond winner and losers. So far, that hadn’t been a problem. But if the vampire placed second and she third, he would probably raise a fuss about her blood much sooner than otherwise.

Eva held her breath.

“Second and third place were difficult. In the end, third goes to the Nod Complex for the Supernatural. Only two members of their school made it to the pyramid. Though the two who did made it to the final chamber first, they squandered their advantage by preemptively attacking the quetzalcoatl and further failed to claim victory.”

Eva had been about to turn to the vampire with a smug grin when she caught a hint of movement.

Just a slight movement in both her sense of blood and her actual vision.

The yellow-haired woman opened her eyes. Not wide, just a slight sliver.

Enough for Eva to notice one being green and the other being violet with a golden pupil.

Eva blinked and the eyes were shut again. The woman looked perfectly average as she smiled her calm smile.

“Brakket Magical Academy had all three members of their school make it to the top of the pyramid, although only two made it inside. They then figured out what to do and made a plan using members of the other schools to enable themselves a victory… Only to have it snatched out of their grasp by our first place school.

“Only one member of Mount Hope Academy made it to the pyramid, but that was enough to place their marble on the activated pedestal. Congratulations.”

He clapped his hands together a few times, prompting most of the staff to begin clapping as well. The Faultline headmaster notably kept his hands at his sides. As soon as the students joined in, Redford tapped the ground with his cane, sending out a silencing click as it hit the wood.

It must be enchanted, Eva thought. The noise was simply too loud to be natural. It had silenced the students during the first feast as well.

“The second event will take place in two weeks’ time. Mount Hope has received a few hints on what might be required for victory. For everyone else, you may be wondering why you were ranked at all. The answer: You will be required to make a selection. Mount Hope will select first. Faultline last.” Redford paused for a moment, looking out over the students. “That is all,” he said, turning to go back to his seat.

Anderson moved to the center to take his place, clapping his hands together to bring attention over to him.

“Exciting, exciting!” he said, rubbing his hands together. “I hope you all are looking forward to the next event. Enjoy the rest of your feast and the rest of your nights!”

As he slipped back behind the table and retook his seat, Eva stared down at the squid bowl.

“Nope,” she said standing. “I’m done.”

Juliana popped up at the same time. “Me too.”

“Don’t worry,” Eva said, putting a hand on Shalise’s shoulder. “We’re just going back to the dorm room.”

Shalise, having started to shovel down as much food as she could, started to slow down. She swallowed up her current bite before looking at Eva with narrowed eyes. “You’re not disappearing again?”

Eva glanced towards Juliana and shook her head. “Not tonight. Take your time, we won’t be going anywhere.”

“If you’re sure,” she said slowly, looking back to her meal with a smile.

With a small chuckle, Eva waved goodbye to Irene, Shelby, Saija, and Jordan as she passed. She did pause as she came up to Randal.

The half-elf sat with poor posture. Something everyone did, but it was notable on the normally appearance obsessed elf. His fork pushed around a few eggs in his bowl without real direction or meaning. Not out of disgust, but out of depression.

Probably.

She knew that a few of the other students had been giving him a hard time about being too slow or… whatever.

So she patted him on the back. “Cheer up. We’ll get them next time,” she said with a false optimism in her voice.

With the rankings given by Redford, Eva was feeling much better than she had the night before. The vampire couldn’t dispute any claim of who won between them. Neither did she actually care about ‘next time’ or anything after that. She was still hoping that the world would ‘end’ before the third event.

He just gave her a sad smile before going back to toying with his food.

Eva and Juliana almost made it back to the Rickenbacker before Eva noticed someone running up behind them.

She turned, ready to blink or toss a fireball depending on the situation. Despite her paranoia, she smiled.

“Emily, did you need something?”

The girl flinched, stopping several paces away. “I’m sorry,” she said softly. “You guys deserved to win.”

Eva just shrugged her shoulders. She almost told her that they were better than the Nod Complex, but decided to remain silent instead. Mostly because that should be obvious from their elevator trip where Eva had all but told everyone that she didn’t care what happened so long as the vampire lost.

“The next event involves construction. Magic assisted building.”

“That… sounds really dull. I’m glad I can’t participate in it.” Though she supposed she could tell the rest of her team. It wouldn’t hurt any. And if they kept it quiet from the vampire and beat him again, all the better. “Does the rest of your school know that you told me?”

“I– No, they don’t,” she said with a sigh.

“Then better run along before people get suspicious. Thanks for telling me though, we’ll try not to beat you guys too bad,” Eva said with a grin.

As she ran off again, Juliana turned to Eva. “What was that all about?”

“Don’t know. Maybe I made a friend.” Eva watched her go, thinking back to the event.

She had used both flames and earth with roughly equal proficiency. Something that could be handy in construction. Of course, since she was barred from participating in the second school event, maybe Eva could offer her another opportunity to show off her skills.

“Think she wants to help bring a Power into reality to do battle with another Power and potentially end the world?”

Juliana shook her head with a sigh. “You should work on your sales pitch.”

<– Back | Index | Next –>


009.011

<– Back | Index | Next –>

Eva didn’t sit around to chat with Randal. A more in-depth questioning on what abilities his bound demon gave him could wait until after they had won this thing.

She had a bad feeling. Nothing with any real reason behind it, just a chill up her spine.

Blinking to the base of the pyramid, Eva hesitated for a second. The stairwell was still a smooth earthen slide. Rather than wait and see if Emily would reverse the staircase, she jumped.

The bottom segment of the pyramid was the largest. She couldn’t jump it all in a single bound. She could, however, dig her hands and feet into the wall. After making a sufficient platform for leverage, she jumped the rest of the way up.

And landed right between Anise and Emily again.

Compared to how she had seen them a mere minute ago, roughly calm but worried about Randal and the Faultline student, they both looked at Eva with some trepidation.

Eva opened her mouth to speak.

Anise beat her to it. She clasped the sides of her head with a loud groan. “I should have attacked you. Or your friend. Now there’s two of you and I still haven’t seen anyone from my school. Ah, I wish Chris were here. She wouldn’t have hesitated to attack you.”

Unless she attacked me right at the start and I knocked her out then, Eva didn’t bother saying. Instead she said, “We’re not going to attack you or anything. You two come up with us and who knows, maybe your schoolmates will show up and you can attack us. Or we activate some trap before winning and get knocked out, leaving you two to take over.”

“I am perfectly content with that plan,” Emily said after a moment of silence. “I mean, I don’t want to speak bad about my school… but I’m probably the only one left. They… we aren’t…”

Eva glared. She wasn’t angry. But she was on a time limit.

“That’s great. We can all have a heart to heart and be friends later. I left Rachael up there with the dryad and I’ve got a bad feeling. Let’s go.”

She took a step, preparing to jump up the stairs to the top, but paused and turned.

“Though if you could turn the stairs back to normal, I’m sure Randal would appreciate it.”

Randal was still within her blood sight range. He was struggling. A lot. He was trying to brace himself against where the stairs would be and the decorative slope between the stairwell and the main pyramid walls. Every now and again, he slid down.

Eva didn’t wait to see if Emily would comply. She half expected Rachael to be watching from the top, yet there was no silhouette against the moonlight sky. They might try attacking Randal, but he could probably handle it if they did. Especially if his magic canceling orbs worked on Elysium Order magic.

She hopped and hopped and hopped until the topmost plateau came in range of her blood sight.

A swear escaped her lips that would undoubtedly be censored over the airwaves.

Eva hopped to the top of the pyramid. Before her feet even touched the ground, she blinked and reappeared next to the vine-wrapped pillar.

A swipe of her fingers had several vines snapping, freeing Rachael. She slumped forwards. Only the tension of the vines had been holding her upright. Her hand pressed up against two bleeding holes in her shoulder.

“He was just waiting for you to leave,” she said, voice soft and lethargic.

Eva didn’t need to ask who ‘he’ was. The vampire had taken more blood than Eva would be comfortable with. Rachael should be fine. Potions could have her fixed up without trouble. Her neck was only lightly bleeding, so her life shouldn’t be in danger as long as she didn’t make the wound worse. Which made sense. The vampire wouldn’t want to kill anyone just as much as Eva didn’t want to.

Probably.

Rachael’s wand was missing as well. Stolen or perhaps flung off the pyramid along with the Faultline wand. Eva had spares from the other members of Faultline. Unfortunately, they were worthless unless Rachael was actually up to the task of wielding one.

“I knew I should have thrown that dryad off the pyramid.”

Rachael let out a few low chuckles. “There are slots for the marbles,” she said, pointing towards the center of the pyramid. “It opened up into an elevator. They went inside. You might be able to catch them before they win this.”

“I hope so,” Eva said as she looked to where Rachael had pointed.

Sure enough, there was a shallow indentation right in the center that looked like it would be the perfect size for the marbles they had received to determine their teams.

But they must have gone pretty deep into the temple. Eva could see the dryad having slipped by her blood sense, but the vampire stuck out like a sore thumb. She hadn’t sensed either of them on her ascent back up the pyramid.

Eva’s first instinct was to run to the elevator, drop her marble in, and give immediate chase.

But then it would be her versus the dryad and the vampire. Alone. Exactly the situation she had been trying to avoid by dragging along the trainee nun this whole time.

Eva blinked to the edge of the stairs.

At least Randal and the others weren’t fighting. And they were hurrying up the stairs. But, only being halfway to the third landing, they were going far slower than Eva needed. Despite having started all the way at the base, Randal had passed by the two girls.

Cupping her hands to her mouth, Eva shouted down at them. “Move it people!”

Both Anise and Emily looked up at her with identical expressions on their faces.

They stared up at her with open mouths, panting as they used her shout as an excuse to stop moving.

It isn’t that far, Eva thought with a groan. Sure, the temple was probably twice the size of the absurdly large ritual circle. But they only had to go half the length of it. Uphill. Rather, upstairs. Which was probably worse if she thought about it for a moment.

But they didn’t have to be so slow about it.

That simply wouldn’t do.

Eva blinked straight down to Anise. Ignoring her yelp, Eva gave her a light shove. Just enough to knock her off-balance. Once off-balance, Eva scooped her up into her arms and started jumping back up the pyramid. Her hops up were shorter than they could be while on her own, but still much faster than Anise climbing unassisted.

“Don’t drop–”

At the top, Eva ignored Anise’s complaints and unceremoniously dropped her on the ground. She ran back to the stairs…

And considered leaving Emily behind once again. Randal was hightailing it up the pyramid and would be at the top soon enough. Even if they left her behind, Emily could still come down the elevator. Probably. Assuming it wasn’t limited in its uses.

If the first to use it was the only one who could, then Eva had already lost. She had to believe that the game wasn’t over yet.

The simple fact of the matter was that Emily didn’t offer all that much to the team. Randal was from her school and therefore a trusted ally. Not to mention his demon bond that gave him more power than the average thaumaturgical mage. Anise had an Elysium Order eye implanted in her chest. Her magic was the ultimate anti-undead. Almost to the point where Eva was concerned she might kill the vampire on accident.

It wasn’t super concerning. If the vampire died, Eva wouldn’t lose much sleep over it. And if somebody killed the vampire who wasn’t her, then all the better.

Emily was just a regular thaumaturge. Not even an experienced one. She was about the same age as Eva, even if she seemed to have a decent handle on both earth magic and fire magic.

However, she wasn’t from the Nod Complex. For the moment, that was good enough for Eva.

Eva blinked again.

“Wait! Don’t–”

Eva knocked her to the side just as she had with Anise, scooped her up, and started hopping up once again.

Randal made it up to the top before Eva did. Not by much. If she hadn’t hesitated in retrieving Emily, she might have made it back first. Or at least at the same time.

“No ride for me?” Randal asked with a mild chuckle. He started to move towards Rachael.

Eva pinched the hem of his shirt without setting down the somewhat squirmy Emily. She dragged him over to the center where Anise was already waiting. As with Anise, Eva dropped Emily on the ground and ignored her groan.

Fishing her marble out of her pocket—which was thankfully still intact despite the holes in her clothes—Eva dropped it into the indentation.

Which promptly opened up and swallowed the marble.

Eva waited. She was expecting the entire platform to move. Or at least the part between the pillars. There was a faint seam where she though the floor might drop out from the rest.

But it wasn’t moving.

“Rachael?” she said, turning. “How long did it take?”

“Only a second or two, but they both put their marbles in.”

Eva looked around her group. “Well? You heard her, what are you waiting for? I hope none of you lost them.”

Anise and Emily both pulled theirs out without complaint and dropped them into the hole. Randal pulled his out and held it in his hand.

He didn’t bend down and put it in the hole. His eyes narrowed as he watched the other two drop their marbles.

“Why are we taking these two with us?”

“Randal,” Eva said, keeping her voice cool. “Put your marble in the hole. If the elevator ride is long enough, maybe I’ll tell you. Nod Complex students are already down there. We don’t have time to sit around up here fighting.”

He hesitated for another moment before tilting his head. “Alright,” he said with a half-sigh.

The second he placed his marble down, the entire platform jolted. Another second and they were moving downwards.

“Good luck,” Rachael shouted just before their heads dipped below the surface of the temple.

Reaching into her pocket, Eva pulled out one of the wands and tossed it at Rachael. “Just in case,” she called out as two stone doors closed over her head.

Randal had his eyes on Eva as soon as the last vestiges of light were pinched by the doors. They snapped shut with a thunderous crash. Beyond that, Eva couldn’t hear much of anything. The elevator was near silent. Maybe a slight grinding of stone against stone if she really strained her ears, but that could just as easily be her imagination.

Not that she needed to hear anything. Randal’s stare was loud enough on its own to make up for the lack of noise around.

She couldn’t actually see his eyes. No new lights lit up inside the slowly lowering chamber.

Well, none save for two bright white lights flaring up where Anise’s eyes should be. They didn’t provide nearly enough illumination to brighten up the entire elevator however.

So Eva decided to help out. She ignited both of her claws, brightening her flames until she could see not only her companions but the moving walls as well. The platform was fairly spacious. Eva couldn’t stretch out her arms without hitting someone else, but she wasn’t up in their faces either. Even still, she took a step closer to the center.

Being able to see the walls moving up while in the elevator unnerved her for some reason.

Interestingly, she couldn’t see any cameras around. The drones had been circling around outside the temple, but none had followed them into the elevator shaft.

“So spill. Why are we not taking their wands. Or kicking them off the top of the pyramid?”

“First,” Eva pointed towards Anise, “she doesn’t need a wand for her most dangerous magic.”

Anise took a step back as Randal turned to glare at her. Though she still had at least two steps to go before hitting the wall, Eva couldn’t help but wince. What if her curly hair snagged on the rough stone walls as they rushed past?

“Second, we’re going down into this temple with who knows what waiting for us. At the very least, there is a dryad and a vampire.”

“You don’t think we can take them?”

“I think I could take them with my eyes closed. While the vampire isn’t necessarily the most powerful representative of his species and the dryad might be a little underwhelming, I still would rather not find out they’ve been hiding all their tricks right at the last moment.”

“I suppose I can understand that,” Randal said, eying the other two girls. “What’s the third reason?”

“What makes you think there is a third reason?”

He turned back, looking at her as if he were offended she had thought so little of him.

Eva sighed.

“Alright. I really don’t want the Nod Complex to win. Like, at all. We have a better chance at stopping them with four of us.”

Turning her attention to Emily, she smiled a nice, closed mouth smile. “I don’t know what your deal with Faultline was, but all three of their people lost their wands. Thanks to yours truly. They can’t win anymore. I expect equal help in keeping the Nod Complex from winning.”

Before Emily could agree or disagree, Eva turned to Anise. “And you’re part of the Elysium Order. Say what you want about demons, but you hunt undead. Think of what an embarrassment it would be if a vampire were to win.”

A jolt almost threw all of them to the ground as the elevator slammed into the ground. It hadn’t slowed down in the slightest before stopping cold. Eva actually had to extinguish her hands in a hurry lest she accidentally burn Randal by bumping into him. When no further jolts came, she moved a step away and reignited her hands.

One of the four walls wasn’t a wall anymore. A doorway had opened up in place of the wall leading out into a long corridor. A camera was mounted on a track along one of the walls, staring right at them.

Eva almost glowered at it. Instead, she grinned and gave it a little wave. Despite their disadvantage in getting down the elevator second, she might as well be a little confident.

As for how far they had gone down, Eva couldn’t say. Rachael’s circulatory system had gone out of range a short while ago. They had traveled for a time since then. For all Eva knew, they could be halfway up the pyramid, level with the ground around it, or even deep underground.

Just beneath the camera was a small tray. Three violet marbles and one yellow were ready for collection.

Eva picked up one of the violet ones, the one furthest from the elevator which should be hers, as did the other girls. Randal picked up his yellow marble.

Based on how they were keys to get down into the pyramid, they were probably used elsewhere inside as well. Maybe keys for doors. Maybe winning the whole thing. Whatever the case, Eva wasn’t about to throw it away.

“Alright. Time is running out.”

With one final glance towards her companions, Eva took off running.

She did not handicap her speed to keep as a group. So long as there was nothing but a single hallway, there was no need. No one would get lost and the vampire should be up ahead.

Though, she was the group’s light source at the moment. The others might be able to get their own light going, but so long as she had her hands aflame, she might as well help out. Eva trailed a finger along the wall opposite from the camera—which was racing along with her—and left fire sticking to the wall in a long line.

So long as she had her spell right, it should burn for several minutes with a decent brightness. Even ten-year-old light bulbs would be better, but the small trail of flames was better still than nothing at all. As long as it stayed lit. It wasn’t something she had done before, but she was fairly confident in her ability.

She was moving fast through the corridor. Her flames only left a thin trail of fire behind her that failed to light up the entire hallway. Ahead of her was dark enough that she nearly crashed into a wall. The hallway looped around, turning straight back the way she had come with a slight incline up a ramp.

Eva only hesitated in continuing for a brief moment before charging forwards. She continued her trail of fire, though she absently noted that the camera decided not to follow her onwards. It went backwards at the turn, perhaps giving the others some screen time.

The inclined passageway wasn’t half as long as the one from the elevator to the turn.

It opened up without a door into a wide and well-lit room. Wide might have been an understatement. As far as Eva could tell, the entire pyramid was hollow. There was a single column in the very center of a gigantic space where the elevator must have been. Cameras lined it up and down, some able to move around on large robotic arms. More cameras hung off the sloped walls of the pyramid, though she couldn’t see any real light sources.

Or do the walls count as a ceiling?

Eva shook her head.

It didn’t matter.

What did matter was the absolute forest that had grown inside. It couldn’t be a natural forest. The flowers and vines and even a few trees had broken away the stone flooring to grow. Maybe Redford had done it, but Eva’s money was on the dryad.

There was a slight decline leading down into the forest bowl that had Eva wondering just how badly space had been twisted inside the temple. It was probably meant to give a view of the area before one actually had to tread down there.

The opposite end of the room looked like a large golden shrine. Two pillars of gold covered in ornate carvings of blocky-looking people surrounded a mural of a sun. She actually had to move a little to see it properly as the large elevator column was in the dead center.

And the vampire stood in front of the mural, pacing back and forth.

Eva tried not to sigh in relief. People who paced back and forth with a scowl on their face generally weren’t about to win a contest. She still had time to get to him.

Better yet, he hadn’t looked back yet. He wasn’t aware of her presence. If his sense of smell was even mildly good, it probably wouldn’t stay that way for long, but Eva held the advantage for the moment.

Perhaps the dryad hadn’t grown the forest. Redford might have planted it all to slow people down and obstruct the pyramid floor. Or the dryad had done it to slow down anyone who might be following the Nod Complex. If they needed to reach the opposite end of the room, either case made perfect sense.

But where was the dryad? Shouldn’t she be up with the vampire? Had he decided that he didn’t need her help and attacked his own teammate?

Before Eva could move even a single step more, her theory was crushed.

Along with the poor dryad.

A massive serpent flew out of the denser section of the forest close to the golden shrine. The shine on its silver scales actually forced Eva to momentarily raise a hand to protect her eyes. Wings made of pure gold carried it through the air.

And a screaming dryad was caught between two blunt antler-like horns coming off its head.

It reared up high in the air before flinging the dryad off.

A gaggle of trees caught her, though still with enough force to make Eva wince. She wasn’t quite sure what it took to kill a dryad—termites maybe—but that had to have been painful no matter what.

At the noise, the vampire gave a callous glance over his shoulder, paying attention for a mere instant before returning his focus to the golden mural.

Eva took a step forwards.

The moment she did, the serpent snapped its head to look at her.

Her eyes locked with the serpent’s massive eyes. She couldn’t tell exactly how large they were, but given the size of the dryad against its horns, each one might as well be as big as Eva was. One was a deep purple with a golden pupil. The other, a dark green with a black pupil. It almost looked as if there was a hexagon inside the green eye. Just lines connecting the edges of the iris.

The gaze lasted only a few short seconds, but Eva found herself gasping for breath at the end of it. She shivered. A chill ran up her spine. She felt a strange sensation as if she and everything about her had been on display like the pages of an open book.

But the silver-scaled serpent did not charge at her. It flicked its long tail straight towards the vampire.

Despite his back being turned, he managed to jump out of the way. It did force him back down into the forest and away from the mural.

Trees came to life as the serpent chased after him. Thick branches reared back and struck the serpent.

Doing little damage as far as Eva could tell. The opposite end of the pyramid was too far for her blood sight, so it might be getting a few bruises beneath those glittering scales. Eva wouldn’t be too surprised if it was entirely unharmed.

By the time Eva was ready to try moving again, all three of her companions showed up in the opening. All three stood and stared with their mouths wide open.

Eva hoped that she hadn’t been quite so slack-jawed. There were cameras watching.

“Know what it is?”

Anise jolted at the sudden address. She quickly shook her head. “I’ve never seen something like that before.”

“Well, it doesn’t look undead. Probably shouldn’t be surprised,” Eva said as she glanced towards the other two.

Neither gave her anything more than a shake of their heads identical to Anise’s.

“Right, well, I have a feeling that those plants are going to be attacking us as soon as we head down there. I don’t know about you, but if those trees are meant to fight that thing,” she said, pointing a long finger, “I don’t really want them attacking me.”

“We could burn our way across,” Randal said.

Anise crossed her arms with a slight huff. “Unless you have really fast acting fire, we’ll just have burning trees attacking us.”

Eva opened her mouth, held up a finger, cocked her head to one side, and snapped her mouth shut. She nodded slightly in agreement before perking up as an idea struck.

“How about this. We set Basila down and have her clear us a path, barreling over all the trees in our path,” Eva said with a wide grin.

“Basila?”

Eva extinguished the flames around one hand and held it up, showing off the stone-like snake coiled around her wrist.

All three of them stared at her with blank looks.

With both the vampire and the dryad either fighting or fleeing from the giant serpent, who—Eva assumed—would go after whoever was closest to the golden shrine, she felt like she had a few moments to breathe. And, so long as she had a moment, she might as well put on a little show for the cameras.

Genoa, assuming she was watching, might get a little amusement out of it anyway.

“Basila!” Eva said, voice slightly raised. She scratched the little snake beneath the chin to wake it up. “These foolish mortals are mocking your brilliance.”

Its tiny little jaw opened up into the cutest little yawn before its steely eyes turned to stare at her.

Eva quickly pulled the little basilisk off her wrist, setting it on the ground. As she did so, she tore a potion flask from her hip, uncapped it, and upended it over the snake.

She had already ‘fed’ it some blood earlier. Blood she could control. If worse came to worse, she could help direct it to where she needed to go.

As soon as the potion touched its black scales, it started growing.

Eva didn’t bother waiting for it to reach full size.

“Go, my pretty,” Eva said, nudging it along with the blood. “Go and trample this forest. Find the vampire and contain him.”

With one last look towards Eva, it slithered off into the forest, still growing larger and larger.

Now the others were looking at Basila with impressed looks on their faces. Or… maybe that was fear. Anise’s lower lip was trembling and her hands were shaking.

“Th-that’s a basilisk.”

“Yep! Let’s go. Use Basila as a shield. Fight off the vampire if you can. Distract him. Whatever. The dryad is a secondary priority. I’m heading for the shrine.”

Eva blinked away.

Basila, rapidly approaching hallway size, charged through the forest without a care in the world. Vines never got a grasp on her, seeds bounced off her scales without her even noticing, and the trees were shattered at the trunk as she rammed into them. A few of the trees whacked into her with a disturbing amount of force before she could destroy them, but they had nothing like nun lightning. Her natural regeneration—or unnatural, given the ritual Eva had performed on her—helped to counteract the damage a great deal.

Eva didn’t actually need to hide behind Basila. So she didn’t. She just kept blinking straight across, leaving the others behind.

She did ensure Basila stayed well within her range, however, just in case the snake decided to coil up around one of her teammates. It did take a nudge every now and again to keep her moving in the right direction.

By the time Eva crossed enough distance to see the vampire, he had obviously noticed her as well. He angled his sprint away from the giant serpent to put them on a collision course.

Eva curled her fingers, conjuring explosive balls of flame between each one.

She tossed them out well ahead of when the vampire would have made it to her, conjuring up a second set the moment they were out of her fingers.

The vampire shifted course to avoid the series of explosions. He ran straight past Eva.

As he did so, he took the serpent with him.

Eva paused for just a moment, inspecting it with her sense of blood.

Though it was roughly a snake, it had a drastically different circulatory system when compared with Basila.

Basila was a golem. Originally, she hadn’t had a circulatory system. After the ritual, she got a single tube of blood running from nose to tail. There were no real veins or capillaries.

The serpent had all that and more. She could see organs. A heart, stomach, lungs, tongue, eyes, and anything else one might expect to see in a living creature. That didn’t really tell Eva much aside from the fact that whatever it was, it was real.

And, so long as it was focused on the vampire, Eva had an opportunity to inspect the mural.

Two more blinks through the fake forest had her at a small set of stairs leading up to the shrine.

They were as gold as the pillars and wall.

Eva jumped straight to the top, frowning slightly as her feet dug large gouges into the floor. They were sharp and gold was soft, but this whole thing couldn’t be real gold.

Not that it mattered, though if it were a prize for victory, that would slightly sweeten the deal.

At the very front of the mural was a small pedestal stretching up to her waist with the top shaped into a shallow cup. The perfect size for a marble.

Of course, dropping her marble in the slot did nothing. If it was that simple, the vampire would have won already. The marble didn’t even stay in the slot, it rolled out despite the depression where the marble should have stayed.

From afar, she had only been able to see the sun. Which was truly massive. Up close, Eva had to crane her neck just to see the top of it. Down closer to the pedestal yet still high above it were two circular moldings protruding from the wall.

Eva shuddered as she looked at them.

One was a set of concentric rings. The other had less rings, but also had lines in the shape of a hexagon.

The serpent’s eyes.

Eva turned back to the forest with grit teeth. Were they supposed to kill the serpent and take its eyes? Put them somewhere around the platform. That seemed a bit violent for live television.

Besides, there wasn’t anywhere to put them even if she did have them. Maybe if the protrusions were deep carvings instead.

Turning back to the arena, Eva quickly surveyed the area. If the trees were gone, everything would be much easier. She could clearly see the trail that Basila was carving through the forest. Even more devastating than a hallway-sized snake plowing through everything were black orbs eating and consuming all the plant life around the area.

Which, if they were made up of magic, made sense.

Eva couldn’t see the dryad anywhere around. Given how well she blended in with the trees—both visually and through her nearly impossible to see blood—Eva doubted she would be able to spot her without her being obvious about it.

The vampire still had the serpent after him. He dashed between the trees, using them as cover and platforms to spring from.

Which had Eva narrowing her eyes.

She was up at the gold shrine. Why hadn’t it switched to her?

Had he stolen something from up here? Had he provoked it?

Despite the white lightning that occasionally fired off in the vampire’s direction and missed, none of her teammates had hit, or even attacked, the serpent. Though maybe someone had while her back had been turned, but she doubted it.

Flying through the air, the vampire reached out. His hand dug into one of the thick branches as if he had Eva’s claws. Doing so stopped him short of a bolt of lightning, but allowed the serpent to close distance.

Something he had apparently planned on.

The tree swung its branch backwards, flinging the vampire on a collision course with the serpent. Both of his hands spread out, intent on gripping onto the serpent.

Or maybe clawing into it.

Not willing to let itself be attacked, the serpent spun around. Its tail whipped into him, sending him flying across the room straight towards the golden shrine.

And, consequently, straight towards Eva.

He twisted in the middle of the air, angling to properly attack her.

Eva ignited every part of her body that wasn’t covered in clothes. Flames dripped from her hands like globs of burning tar, spreading across the platform. They wouldn’t last long, but she only needed them to last long enough to ward off the vampire.

His eyes went wide as Eva’s smile widened.

Even if he could hop around without getting hurt, he couldn’t fly. Physics still carried him straight to her waiting arms.

Her burning arms.

Eva’s fist connected with his stomach. Flames from her arm launched forwards when her arm found itself unable to continue, coating the vampire’s shirt in the sticky flames.

He jumped away before Eva could follow up. His shirt flew off his body as he grasped one of the pillars, keeping high and out of Eva’s immediate range.

“Will you desist,” he snapped at her, not really asking a question.

Eva didn’t bother answering. The vampire was already leaping towards her.

More, the serpent was on a collision course with the mural. The mural she just happened to be standing in front of.

Eva jumped, letting the vampire take the blow. She landed just between its horns, grabbing onto one as she extinguished her flames.

Amazingly enough, she didn’t go flying into the wall when the serpent hit it.

In fact, the serpent didn’t hit it at all.

The vampire caught the serpent, one hand on each of the person-sized fangs. Normally, such a thing would have had Eva staring. Even for a vampire, that was an impressive display of strength. The serpent was at least twice the size of a hallway-sized Basila. Probably bigger.

But Eva’s eyes were glued to the mural.

Before, it had been a solid sheet of gold. Slight lines formed the pattern of the sun, but they were engravings rather than any other sort of material.

As the vampire held the serpent, the mural lit up. The lines that had previously been mere indentations in the gold began radiating light. The two eye shaped constructs lit up purple and green, identical to the serpent’s eyes.

Everything clicked.

The vampire threw his arms to the side, sending the flying serpent off towards one of the walls. Eva had to grab on tight as it lifted high in the chamber to avoid crashing.

Twisting her neck to see behind her, Eva found the mural back to its default state. No lights and no colors.

Eva looked down. Spotting Basila near instantly, she blinked.

“Anise,” Eva said, dodging the nun’s glowing battle-axe, “I need you to get to the vampire and just hound him. Make him absolutely unable to do anything.”

“Wha–”

“No time to argue. Basila will help keep the plants off your back. Just find him and lock him down.” Eva used the blood within Basila to send her off in the direction of the vampire. He was fast. Far too fast for her to expect Basila to get a hit in, let alone coil around him.

But that was what Anise was for.

“Follow Basila, she’ll lead you to the vampire.”

Anise hesitated for another moment, opening her mouth.

A single glare from Eva had her moving after the basilisk.

“Randal,” Eva said, turning to face him. “Get to the big golden shrine and get your marble ready. You can’t put it in until the shrine is active.”

At least, that was what Eva was assuming. It seemed logical, but she hadn’t really been in a position to try while the shrine had been active.

“Sounds easy. You just taking a nap while we’re doing all the hard work?”

Eva looked up to the serpent as it drifted about overhead, looking for something to attack.

“I’ve got a snake to wrangle.”

“Fair enough. I suppose I’ll leave you to it.”

Eva turned, about to blink away as Randal ran off. Emily gripped her hand, stopping her cold.

“What about me?”

“Help Randal, I suppose,” Eva said after a moment of silence. Really, she wasn’t quite sure what Emily was going to do that Randal couldn’t, but at least it gave her something to do.

She nodded, offering a smile before running off.

Left alone, Eva gave herself a moment to concentrate. Blinking onto a moving target, especially one higher up, was near impossible. Not without losing a leg or worse. However, she could blink to a point in front of it and hope she could grab onto its horns.

Horns? Eva thought with a frown. Snakes didn’t have horns. Not even basilisks. Neither did they have wings. Maybe it was actually a Chinese dragon, though why it was in the middle of a pyramid was anyone’s guess.

Not that it mattered at the moment.

Eva blinked.

Staring at a creature with a mouth twice her size coming straight at her as she fell had Eva wondering if it was such a good idea after all.

She landed hard on its forehead, bouncing slightly and letting out a groan even as she tried to get a grip on its antler-like horns. Even with Arachne’s claws, there wasn’t much more than a light scrape on whatever they were made out of.

“Great job Eva,” she mumbled to herself, face down on the platinum scales with her arms wrapped around one horn. “Now what?”

Now she had to wrangle it.

Easier said than done.

Using the horn for support, Eva slowly made it to her feet.

White flashes of lightning and fire lit up a section of the forest. Anise must have been doing her job properly. She was slightly out of range of Eva’s blood sight—as was Basila—but Eva couldn’t see the vampire anywhere. Emily and Randal had both made it up to the shrine and were doing nothing more than standing around.

The perfect time.

Eva gripped the horn. With all of her body weight behind it, she yanked it to the side.

The dragon’s gaze crossed the shrine, but only long enough to cause a faint glow. Something that had probably happened numerous times and yet had been too subtle to notice.

Eva’s grip nearly came loose as the dragon shook its head. She grit her teeth and wrapped her legs around the horn for extra grip until it stopped bucking.

When it did, it faced away from the shrine.

Which wasn’t bad.

If it kept going straight, she could loop it around the elevator pillar. If she could even its flight out afterwards, that would give it a much straighter path and, more importantly, a longer path than the simple turn of its head. Its gaze would be on the shrine for longer.

Eva carefully leaned back and forth, never putting too much force in her attempts to steer the dragon for fear of it suddenly bucking again. She kept it going straight until it had passed the pillar.

Only then did she shove against its right horn.

Almost immediately, she let go of the right horn and barreled into the left, leveling it out.

The shrine lit up in a brilliant gold. In front of it, Randal started to reach his arm towards the pedestal.

“Randal!” Eva shouted.

A moment too late.

Vines snapped out of the dryad’s wrist and wrapped around Randal’s arm. She yanked his arm back even as she ran forwards with her own green marble in hand.

He spun, stumbling twice before gathering his wits about him and casting one of his orbs at the vines.

Eva tried to slam her body against the dragon’s horn again to break contact.

But it was too late.

A hand slammed a violet marble down into the slot, just before the dryad could reach the pedestal.

The golden mural exploded into a rainbow of colors, forcing Eva to shield her eyes.

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